Lest I Offend Thee

by Richard Butrick (May 2014)

The 1st Amendment (1791) contains a prohibition against any laws that restrict the free exercise of religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It took nearly a hundred years for the supreme court to “clarify” just what “free exercise” meant. Some rather nasty exercises against one’s fellow man have been and are done in the name of religion.

“Freedom of religion means freedom to hold an opinion or belief, but not to take action in violation of social duties or subversive to good order,” Chief Justice Waite wrote in Reynolds v. United States (1878). The U.S. Court found that while laws cannot interfere with religious belief and opinions, laws can be made to regulate some religious practices, e.g., human sacrifices, and the Hindu practice of suttee. The Court stated that to rule otherwise, “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government would exist only in name under such circumstances.” [link]

Now just where does making remarks critical of a religion fit in this picture? Have such remarks interfered with a persons right to his beliefs and opinions? In general is interfering with a person’s beliefs by scathing criticisms which cause said person to lose or question his beliefs, or even enrage said person, interfering with their RIGHT to their beliefs and opinions? No. They still have the right to ignore such criticisms. As long as they are not being coerced to listen (professors with grade power?) their right has not been abrogated. The whole Socratic enterprise is based on using logic and reason to point out entailed consequences of a position that render a position untenable – hurt feelings be damned.

Moreover, feeling offended is just that – a feeling. Taking offense varies from individual to individual and even in a given individual from time to time. What offends one person may delight another. Why should taking offense be elevated above depriving another of a feeling of delight? Condemning or endorsing behavior not because of the nature of the behavior itself but because of the feelings the behavior may provoke is about as promising an exercise as proscribing behavior on the basis of the weather. Is stealing only wrong if the person whose property is stolen is really upset? Special considerations must be given to people who are easily offended?

The recent scrum over Brandeis University offering and then rescinding the offer of an honorary degree to Hirsi Ali because she made “offensive” remarks about Islam has brought to the forefront the question of just how much weight should be given to the issue of offending someone in the course of making decisions or taking actions. Hirsi Ali is a fierce defender of women’s rights and a fierce critic of the subjugation of women condoned and justified under the banner Islam. She also committed the unpardonable sin of saying that Islam was a death cult in an interview.

Now Brandeis, of course, can do whatever it wants with regard to offering honorary degrees. But the considerations that provoked Brandeis to retract their invitation and honorary degree do not pass the Kantian test of whether the basis is generalizeable. If X makes critical remarks of a religion then X should not be awarded an honorary degree?

But the Muslim students were offended. They claimed they were made to feel unwelcome. Again feelings. They advanced no general argument refuting Hirsi’s position nor did they claim they were more than willing to debate her position. It was just that their feelings were hurt. Moreover, the award was for her work promoting women’s rights and for her general criticism of the current practices being justified under the banner of Islam. The award was not for her critique of Islam, per se, as currently promulgated by prominent Mullahs in the Ummah.

Brandeis University has elevated feelings above reason. It has turned what should presumably be an academic environment in which reason and critical analysis form the basis for making decisions into a Woody Allen movie. Feelings reign supreme. The characters in a Woody Allen movie all parade their feelings and somehow are embroiled is a struggle to elevate their own feeling above other’s feelings. Of course that is not all there is to a Woody Allen movie but, in general, elevating or lowering the expectations of human behavior  based on some sort of authenticity-of-feelings meter puts us all back in the crib.

The attempt to make the right not to be offended into some sort of uber-value which trumps free speech is inherently not systematically enforceable as what is offensive varies from individual to individual and even, in time, in the same individual. The only reason it is not immediately ensnared in a miasma of conflicting designations is that, indeed, the PC world has elevated the feelings of a favored minority above those of the other segments of society. The minority de jour gets their way based on feelings. X is prohibited behavior if it makes Y feel bad and Y is a member of a preferred minority. Deep thinking from Brandeis.

Let me put this as diplomatically as possible. If  you can’t handle the 1st Amendment you are not welcome. Offense intended.



Dr. Richard Butrick is an American writer who has published in Mind, Philosophy of Science, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, International Journal of Computer Mathematics among others.


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