Monday, January 12, 2015

Word of the week: offend

Photo Credit: CanStockPhoto under creative commons licence
Where is the line between the right to free expression and the responsibility to respect others?

There’s a debate going on now about whether media outlets should republish the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo that enraged three men in France enough to kill 25 people at the magazine and at a kosher grocery store, and wound another 20.

In Canada, several newspapers, most of them French-language, republished the cartoons. Most English-language newspapers, however, did not. The New York Times’ editor changed his mind twice about the issue, ultimately deciding not to publish them.

The French language side of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Radio-Canada, published them on its website. The English-language service made a point of not doing so. David Studer, CBC's director of journalistic standards and practices, said that there was no need to publish the cartoons to understand the story, and that since CBC would not have published them before the shootings, there was no reason to publish them after.

Last Friday, the lunchtime radio call-in program in my home town debated the issue. Most of the callers, Muslim or not, agreed with the sentiment that the cartoons should not be published because they are offensive, particularly those that depict the prophet Muhammed in sexual situations.

Think of the children!

One caller who identified herself as a Muslim said that “I am trying to raise my children to respect Muhammed, and how can they when they see images like that?”

Protecting children is important. In Canada, 344 people drowned in 2012. Open water can be dangerous for anyone.

How do we protect children against drowning? We teach them swimming and water safety. As a result of increased numbers of children enrolled in swimming lessons, the drowning statistics for children under age 18 has been declining steadily.

Automobile accidents claim thousands of lives every year. Yet we teach children to drive cars. We acknowledge that the danger is best met and mitigated by teaching people how to deal with real danger.

But we have such a different attitude when it comes to offence, insult or criticism of figures that some people revere.

Why? What could happen to the Prophet were someone to criticize him? I haven’t seen any harm come to Islam itself as a result of cartoons. And don’t imagine that the murders were somehow divine retribution. That was the action of three angry, petulant and ultimately immature young men who decided on their own to react to an insult with deadly force. The same way a playground bully will use force to react to an insult.

I understand that people do not like to be offended. But we all have a choice when it comes to offensive material: we don’t have to look. No one has to look at pornography. No one has to read satire. You don’t have to read or watch The Last Temptation of Christ.

In a pluralistic, egalitarian society, which is what we are trying to build in the West, we respect each other’s right to practise any religion we choose, as long as we’re not harming anyone else. But your right to respect your religion does not trump my right to express my ideas. And if I feel the need to criticize a religious leader, that’s my right.

To my Muslim friends: if you are afraid of being offended, do not scroll any lower. I am going to republish some of the offensive cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. Not gratuitously, not just to make fun of a revered man, but as part of a question I want candid answers to.

Are you offended by this?

Personally, I think this is funny, riffing on a scene from a Brigitte Bardot film. I think it’s important to poke fun at revered figures, because it allows us to question our leaders, to hold them to account, and to question our own assumptions. We need to do this every so often, so we can make certain we are not being hypocrites.

And really, we are seeing a man’s bare ass. How does that hurt anyone? Even if it’s not beautiful, it’s not harmful. We’ve all seen someone’s bare ass at some point in our lives, and we’re none the worse for it.

How about this one?
It’s a reference to the film “Intouchables,” about a disabled, rich white man who hires a poor black man to care for him. The dialog bubble means “We must not be mocked.” Is it funny? Does it offend you? Tell me in the Comments section.

And what about this one? 
What do you think?

Even if it is disrespectful, Charlie Hebdo did not harm anyone or anything. And here’s a suggestion to those who did feel offended and disrespected: consisder satire like Charlie Hebdo’s like a vaccination. If you can deal with the disrespect and come up with a response—one that does not involve violence or repression—maybe your faith will be stronger for it.


  1. Anonymous12:12 PM

    I think a good question to ask here is what does it mean to be offended.

  2. Anonymous2:09 PM

    Wow. Yes, I'm sorry, but I think those cartoons are offensive, no matter who they are aimed at. But I don't think the authors of the cartoons deserved to die for it. People have a freedom to express themselves, no matter how offensive they are. I simply don't respect them for exercising that freedom.

  3. Excellent post. It is impossible to have a free and open society if every person is permitted to restrict what every other person is allowed to say or do based on what they find offensive. I find religion offensive - all religion. Lucky for many in this country that I don't get to dictate what's allowed and what's not allowed. For speech to be free it ALL has to be free. Even the ugly and disgusting parts (i.e. the kkk, those a* holes at westboro, the extreme conservative right wing sect of christian culture in the US). By it's very nature democracy requires dissent, disagreement and discussion, as well as tolerance, collaboration, cooperation and empathy.

  4. To me, the word "offend" is used by a group who find a compatible view/ideal and when another conflicts - it offends. SO, in that context, cannibals offend me since I don't like eating my fellow man BUT, cannibals, in turn, are offended that I don't partake of the food they have graciously offered to me. Therefore, OFFEND is in the eye of the beholder, not the doer. One man's good is another man's bad. Live with it.

  5. Kate Dunn4:19 PM

    Certainly a lot to chew on in this article (luckily it's not about cannibalism). I've had this debate over the dinner table several times since the Charlie Hebdo shootings and this is good grist for the conversation mill.