Freedom of Expression
I do not have the right not to be offended.
Ouch. That hurts a little, but it’s true.
This past Saturday, the Centre for Inquiry Calgary was officially inaugurated and Monday the Lethbridge Freethinkers Society had it’s first event. At both of these functions, Justin Trottier, executive director for the Centre for Inquiry Ontario, spoke about CFI’s “Campaign for Free Expression.” What he said was certainly not what I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed to hear. I like to think that it’s my scientific mind that allows me to admit I’m wrong when faced with incontrovertible evidence, but the fact still stands that I’ve been wrong.
Let me explain: I think most of us understand that the price of our own freedom of expression is the right for people we disagree with to have this freedom as well. I begrudgingly admit that if I expect my student’s union to ratify a gay and lesbian group (or a Freethinkers group, for that matter), I have to allow that a pro-life group will also be able to ratify, hold events, put posters up, and have membership drives. I will, however, pay extra careful attention to anything they say or do and report them if I think they’ve crossed the line into discrimination or offensiveness.
But here is the thing: I do not have the right not to be offended. None of us do. I have the right not to be discriminated against, but discrimination is associated with actions, not speech.
Just a few days ago an independent candidate in Sudbury, Ontario made headlines when he told a kid at an all-candidates forum held at a high school that all homosexuals should be executed, according to the Bible. I, of course, was awfully offended and I applauded to hear he was being investigated for hate speech. Now, though, I’m not so sure. I used to think that there was a difference between “I hate gays,” “I think gays should be killed” and “let’s go kill some gays,” but I’m now thinking that as long as no one does go and kill any gay people, no crime has been committed. I should be allowed to say and think as I choose, and so should anyone else.
According to this line of thought, I should actually be defending the candidate’s right to tell high school kids that all homosexuals should be executed. In some ways, his ignorant jackass statement did my side a favour: now all those voters know his bigoted fundamentalist views and can vote accordingly. While many people are opposed to gay marriage, not many favour executing even the blackest of black sheep in their families. With views like this exposed, we can keep track of them. They aren’t going underground. Also, I bet more than a few families had gay marriage/gay rights talks with their kids that night. I know it was all over the news. Talking about stuff like this is always good.
Ideas should be aired so they can be supported and attacked. Freedom of expression means that we have the right to express our views, what it does not mean is that our views have the right to be uncriticized. If people I disagree with are allowed to state their piece, that gives me the ability to rebut their arguments, to argue my side. This way, discourse isn’t limited by political correctness and we have the ability to grow beyond our current comfort levels.
Let me be clear though: I also think that just because we have the right to do something does not mean we always should. I have the right to drink myself silly every day and night, but I know that this would cause great harm, so I choose not to exercise that right too often. Yes, according to freedom of expression we had the right to publish the Muhammad cartoons back in 2006, but I think that once we realized that the ball court was one we were unfamiliar with (we have no analogous concept to the Muslim prohibition of images of Muhammad. None. We were in over our heads and refused to admit it), we should have judiciously chosen not to exercise it. Sometimes peace is more important than victory.
This also does not mean I welcome the teaching of creationism in the science classroom. This is not a matter of freedom of expression, it is a matter of making up “facts” and “evidence,” and covertly trying to change definitions so as to teach religion in science classes. We do not teach Shakespeare in math class, not because we are closed-minded intolerants who are stifling the Shakespearian scholars, but because literature is not math. Teach it in English class. Teach creationism in religion class, along with all the other religion’s creation myths. If creationists want to get their views represented in the science curricula all they have to do is follow the scientific process. That’s it.
So that’s the painful truth that I came to during my intense weekend with rationalists and humanists in Calgary and Lethbridge. It was fantastic to attend both events, there were many great speakers and great speeches given later over a few beers as well. Justin Trottier, Cliff Erasmus, Scott, Ben, Ian, Jim, and all the rest of the leaders/organizers and participants were just fabulous. I came away from the experience with a sligh feeling of having been chastened, and a whole lot of enthusiasm to get going on the next project.