By Amit RJ
To take offense is a natural state and is one of the responses to a stimulus. There is a small gap between stimulus and response. However in that gap we have the freedom to choose what our response will be.
If we were to be so preoccupied by what would be the response to the stimulus, our actions would be paralyzed with fear. If becoming offended is a natural response, then not being offended cannot be a right, in my view.
If we take a flight in the past and look at the samples of events which had a profound effect on shaping the society we live in today, it will become more clear to us.
Our wings of time take us to around 835 AD in the region of what 1300 years later would be called the ‘Middle East’. The Abbasid empire is in decline and its caliph Al-Mamun is dead. With Al-Mamun the decline of Mu’tazil(ism) has started. By 885 AD it had become a crime to make copies of any book of philosophy. The beginning of the de-Hellenization of Arabic high culture is underway.
By the twelfth or thirteenth century, the influence of Mu’tazilism will be nearly completely marginalized. In the place of Mu’tazil(ism), will soon rise the anti-rationalist Ash’ari school of thought. While the Mu’tazilites have contended that the Koran is created and so God’s purpose for man must be interpreted through reason, the Ash’arites will profess the Koran to be coeval with God — and therefore unchallengeable. Science, logic and reason have become the work of Satan.
We arrive in Rome in 1600. Crowds are standing in a public square in Rome. A human body charred and beyond recognition lies at the centre. This is the body of Giordano Bruno – an Italian scientist who supported the Copernican theory of Heliocentrism and he held the thoroughly modern view that distant stars are orbited by their own, possibly inhabited, planets. He stated that the universe is infinite in size and has no center. The Pope had imprisoned him for 7 years, eventually deciding that he should be burnt at the stake.
Time flies again and we ride it to the year 1633. The trial of Galileo of Galilei just got over. He has been found to be ‘vehemently suspected of heresy’. Galileo recanted in the court and stated that his support of Copernican theory was the result of “vain ambition, pure ignorance, and inadvertence”.
Galileo’s life has been spared and he has been ordered to house arrest for the remainder of his life. In 1638, Galileo, then elderly and blind will be visited by an English poet, John Milton. In 1644 John Milton proceeded to argue against licensing and censorship in a speech to the English parliament.
We fly with time 11 years ahead and into the English parliament. It is 1644. John Milton, by now a known literary figure in English society is making a speech where he says ,“this was it which had dampened the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”
Now we’ll race to 1859 where we pick a copy of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. Here we wait another 11 years and pick up a copy of another of Darwin’s master work ‘Descent of Man’. These two books have revolutionized our understanding of how life evolved on planet Earth and how we as a species came to be. However Darwin’s works were not met by universal acclaim.
Some felt that Darwin’s views were an attack on the role of a Creator in nature and drove a wedge between the moral and spiritual values and aspirations of mankind. Instead of tracing a lineage to the son of God, Darwin’s theory suggested man had only beastly origins.
In 1960, 30 years after the renowned novelist D.H. Lawrence had died, a landmark case was decided following a six day trial. Penguin House, the publisher of Lawrence’s novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, was tried under the ‘Obscene Publications Act’ for publishing a book that was likely to ‘deprave or corrupt’. It was seen by many including the ‘Director of Public Prosecutions’ as an affront to the morality of society and a danger to readers.
The prosecution’s opening speech of the trial contained a tally of the number of ‘obscene’ or swear words that could be found within the book – more than 80 in total. The prosecution called no witnesses. One of its arguments was “Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”. The proposed price of the novel was also raised by the prosecution as a cause for concern – at just 3s 6d, it was deemed cheap enough for almost anyone to read. Thankfully, the prosecution did not win the case
Our ‘Time Travel’ flight of fancy took off somewhere in 9th century AD in the now ‘Middle East’, flew through medieval Europe, sampled the happenings and reception to avant-garde novels and scientific literature of the twentieth century.
This is a less than minuscule sample of examples where freedom of speech or expression upset the socially acceptable norms of either the society, offended the religion of the land or posed a challenge to papal or papal like authorities or posed a direct challenge to the government of the day.
Speaking of the specific instances of Charlie Hebdo’s hurtful and targeted publications, or the disgusting burning of the Holy Quran tour by Paludan – the response could be:
- A vigorous condemnation by entire societies (which would be inline with use of freedom of speech and expression),
- No response (not possible in this age of hyperactive media publication – I am including social media as well) – why provide free advertisement?
- Education as to why acts like Charlie Hebdo and Paludan are wrong.
Freedom of speech and expression has been enshrined as a human right in many of the world’s progressive democracies. In some democracies, hate speech and speech inciting violence is unlawful – and even there the legal burden of proof is very high for the prosecution. I look at it as public policy.
Public policies in progressive democracies are made to achieve the larger public good – at least that is the position that is taken in public policy related academia.
Amit RJ is a Toronto based Info Tech professional and a professional photographer, who likes to free think. Website: amitrjphotography.com
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times