Offending for the Sake of Offending

The building housing the Danish embassy in Dam...
The building housing the Danish embassy in Damascus, Syria burning after being stormed by demonstrators. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I support the free expression of ideas. This includes ideas with which I disagree, and it certainly includes ideas which many people consider to be offensive. In fact, I'd suggest that the free expression of ideas has little value if it does not include the freedom to express ideas which many people find offensive (e.g., the criticism of cherished religious beliefs). If we allow fear of causing offense to limit the expression of ideas, we are not sufficiently free and are doing a poor job of protecting our right to free expression.

At the same time, I acknowledge that there is a difference between expressing ideas which many people regard as offensive and deliberately trying to offend merely for the sake of offending. Admittedly, this is not always an easy difference to detect. For that reason, I'm inclined to err on the side of free expression even when confronted with cases where it appears that the only goal is to offend. That is, even if I'm not sure that the person expressing himself or herself is trying to do anything more than offend others, I support his or her right to do so.

None of this prevents us from concluding that some ideas are more worthwhile than others. Clever cartoons satirizing Islam are probably more valuable than deliberate attempts to upset Muslims merely for the sake of causing offense. Contrast an insightful critique of Islam or the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad with some drunk moron who decides to wipe his ass with the Koran and post it on YouTube. I have a difficult time concluding that these approaches are equally valuable even though I'd defend them both as forms of free expression.

We all know that there are people out there who are going to take offense at practically anything you or I might say. And when we do what we do (e.g., criticize religious and other irrational beliefs, promote reality-based alternatives, work to advance the separation of church and state), we cannot be overly concerned with offending them. We cannot allow concerns about offending others to stifle our creativity, our activism, our quest for civil rights, or anything else we are doing. The cartoonist depicting Muhammad is trying to communicate something through satire. We cannot let the fear of causing offense to inhibit this.

I think we can also agree that there are people out there who are deliberately trying to offend others for no purpose but to cause offense. They are not expressing ideas that some people happen to find offensive; they are intentionally trying to offend. While I do support their right to do this as a form of free expression, that does not mean that I consider what they are doing to be equally valuable to what I described above. The drunk guy with the YouTube video isn't expressing much of anything, and I do not think we need to consider what he's doing to be valuable even if I'd argue that we still need to protect his right to do what he's doing.

The right to free expression is too important to take lightly. It does not include the right to express only those ideas with which we agree or find valuable; it must also include ideas we despise and find worthless. None of this means that we must agree that all ideas are equally valuable or worthy of being expressed. But I think it does mean that we must be extremely cautious about using our appraisal of an idea's value to determine whether we allow it to be expressed.