Free speech does not mean we have the right to offend

As Charlie Hebdo releases their ‘Survivors’ issue, in which the Prophet Mohammed is depicted, people have appealed to the values of a society in which such publications can exist, and defended our right to offend. But whilst we might accept no one has the right to not be offended, is it the case that we do have, as Charlie Hebdo’s lawyer argued, “the right to blaspheme” or, in general, the right to offend?

For many in the wake of the attack in Paris, upholding the right to free speech is the most important thing we can do. Drawing the Prophet, making jokes at the expense of Islam or parts of it, no matter how insulting it is to some, is crucial in showing that we will not be swayed by the oppressive actions of others.

And of course, there is something powerful in that message. We know all too well that we could have called for an invasion or an upping of the bombing over IS-held areas. We’ve done it before in response to terrorist attacks. But this time, instead, we pledged to buy a magazine, brandished pens in the air, walked through the very city that was attacked and declared that our values will not be swayed by the actions of a maligned few.

Yet, this is to encourage the publication of images that we know will probably be insulting not only to radical extremists but also to the overwhelming majority of Muslims that do not hold the beliefs of the Hebdo attackers. That we desire to offend a few at the expense of many who are our friends, neighbours and fellow citizens seems contradictory to another of our beloved values: tolerance.

The depiction of Prophet Mohammed to a non-Muslim is inconsequential. In isolation, for any non-Muslim individual, it means absolutely nothing at all. Depicting him only becomes meaningful to a non-Muslim when it’s done in relation to others – when it’s done to provoke, to insult, to offend.

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There will be those who argue that in a tolerant society, there will be opinions against particular creeds, and whilst we tolerate religion and religious diversity we must also tolerate those who speak out against what they see as something damaging for society. We cannot be tolerant of one without being tolerant of the other.

Certainly, I have no right not to be offended by the words and actions of others. I might be offended when someone preaches the Second Coming or that abortion is sinful, but I have no right to have these people silenced. As I express my opinion, so too can they express theirs.

Neither, however, do I have the right to intentionally offend others.

I am offended by the street-corner preacher because my beliefs are in conflict with those of the person who offended me. The preacher’s intention was to change my beliefs, to persuade me, and not to offend me. Were the preacher to say certain things just to make me angry, I would question his right to say those things. Similarly, I have no right to swear in a church just because I wish to rile the local Vicar.

I can be offended, and accept that as the case, without someone having the right to offend at the same time. This ‘right’ as a concept seems nothing more than a glamorous attempt at justifying the entitlement of people to be deliberately hurtful towards others.

In the aftermath of such horrific attacks, where we seek to reassert and find solace in our values, we should be careful not to misconstrue their meaning and damage those values in the process. We hold free speech dear because it promotes tolerance, acceptance and constructive debate.

Publishing depictions of Prophet Mohammed is not a re-affirmation of our values in the way we think it is. Whilst no one has the right not to be offended, we certainly don’t have the right to offend. Free speech and tolerance are values we hold to ensure cohesion and peace, not animus.