The right to offend

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Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya focuses on the dilemma of why the right to offend is so seldom exercised.

 “When is a right not a right?” 

This thought came to my mind as a result of two unrelated news articles in the South African media. One featured radio personality DJ Fresh, who has since been sacked from the country’s biggest breakfast radio show for using offensive language and refusing to apologise for it once cited.

Another featured controversial personality, Zodwa Wabantu, whose utterances regarding gay men, has caused some people to call for the termination of her television show.

What struck me is that the two did not appeal to what is often called “the right to offend”, as those who often hurt the feelings of religious communities tend to do. When exactly and under what circumstances does this right — if it is indeed a right —kick in?

For some reason, the right to offend is often used to justify and explain liberties taken to ridicule faith, religious figures or politicians and seldom for other groups.

For some reason, the right to offend is often used to justify and explain liberties taken to ridicule faith, religious figures or politicians

If it is a “right”, one must assume that it can easily be relied upon to defend oneself of any charge of bigotry for saying anything offensive about blacks, fat people, gays or albinos for example. 

So how come this right is used so sparingly? 

One of the more infamous examples of the exercise of this right to offend was of how French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdoin 2011 published a cover featuring the Prophet Muhammad and a word balloon reading “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter”.

Islam prohibits the recreation of living forms, even as artworks. So the recreation of its highest prophet was an extraordinary exercise of the right to offend Islamic sensibilities.

In reaction to these depictions, Muslim terrorists stormed the publication’s offices and murdered Charlie Hebdostaff members in an act that was widely and rightfully condemned as an act of terrorism.

There are very few people who would contest the idea that all human institutions are not beyond questioning — even if the adherents of the institutions believe them to be heavenly or divine.

In this day and age it should not be hard to explain why comedians, cartoonists, and anyone else, would be entitled to satirise any public institution, including religion and its practitioners.

The Church and religion in general are therefore not beyond the scope of being criticised and critiqued, be it by the scholar or the court jester.

What is key is that believers know the basis of their faith and are “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (Peter 3:15).

What we hold sacred should not have to depend on the opinions of others, regardless of whether they do so out of malice or ignorance. Their endorsement or ridicule should be irrelevant.

What we hold sacred should not have to depend on the opinions of others, regardless of whether they do so out of malice or ignorance.

It would be a waste of time and energy demanding an apology or a change of mind from those who are bent on dismissing faith as an “opiate of the masses” just because you expressed taking offence at their utterances. 

Life would probably be a little more blissful if nobody ever said anything that could hurt any other person’s feelings. Unfortunately, we know that this is not going to happen. 

This holds for both the reason that some people do and say things that make it impossible for others to hold their tongues and also because some people are just plain old fashioned nasty.

Those who want to offend will do so, regardless of whether they can appeal to a certain written “right” to do so.

If religious communities and beliefs can be offended in the name of exercising the so-called right to offend, why then can any other human being or category of people be exempted from being offended in the name of exercising the same right? 

The right to offend is a slippery slope “right”. It does not take long before one realises that if one were to be consistent in its application, the only ones who would benefit from it would be bigots who would hide behind their right to freedom of expression and its attendant sub-clause to cause offence.

So if you are going to offend, at least have the courage of your convictions and the willingness to live with the consequences. Any other exercising of a right where one gratuitously attacks the sensibilities of others, and the overreaction to this, displays an immaturity on both sides of the equation. 

Love for thy neighbour requires we be sensitive to the wellbeing of others , including their feelings. We do not need to agree with or understand our neighbours to learn to live and let live.

So if you are going to offend, at least have the courage of your convictions and the willingness to live with the consequences. 

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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The right to offend

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