January 26, 2015

David Cameron on the Right to Cause Offense

David Cameron at the 37th G8 Summit in Deauville 104
Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY
One of the real problems with guilt-by-association is that it often prevents us from encountering good ideas from sources we don't particularly like. And even when we do encounter such an idea, we may have difficulty acknowledging it as a good one.

This pattern has been evident in "the great rift" dividing the atheist blogosphere for some time. Fans of Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ are reluctant to recognize the valuable points made by those of us who criticize them, and fans of the critics often have trouble acknowledging the contributions of Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+. While one could certainly argue that this is a trivial example, the world of politics offers plenty less trivial ones.

Far too many political conservatives hastily dismiss the ideas of their liberal counterparts without giving them proper consideration. And far too many political liberals reject any idea a conservative offers without bothering to evaluate the merits of the idea. It seems to me that this is one of the most unfortunate consequences of routinely demonizing one's political or ideological opponents.

With this in mind, I come to  British Prime Minister David Cameron. Admittedly, I'd have a hard time characterizing myself as a fan of his politics; however, I think it is important to acknowledge when those who hold different political views get something right. And I think it is especially important to do so when they end up being on the right side of controversial issues on which some of those with similar political views as one's own are getting wrong.

Here is what Cameron had to say during an interview last week:
I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offense about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian. If someone says something offensive about Jesus, I might find that offensive but in a free society I don’t have a right to wreak my vengeance upon them.
Yes! As a Christian, he may indeed take offense when someone says something about Jesus he does not like. This is to be expected. And yet, he somehow manages to recognize that feeling offended does not grant him the right to attack others violently. This is an important lesson that unfortunately seems to be lost on some of my fellow liberals.

During the same interview, Cameron also said:
We have to accept that newspapers, magazines can publish things that are offensive to some as long as it’s within the law.
Right. Because free speech and freedom of the press matter.

I am aware that Cameron, along with the leaders of many European nations, has maintained restrictions on free speech in some unfortunate ways. Some forms of offending others have been criminalized in some of these countries in ways with which I strongly disagree. I do not consider some of the accusations of hypocrisy I have heard to be off base. My goal here isn't to suggest that Cameron is a champion of free speech; I'm merely giving him credit for making these statements at a time when this was what the world needed to hear.