The last week or so has provided abject demonstrations of the freedom to offend. In the New Yorker Salman Rushdie chronicled the arc of his last 23 years of living under a death sentence declared by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini; Russia’s political vanguard, Pussy Riot, received prison sentences for their demonstration against the collusion between Russia’s latest tyrant Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church; and a wave of violent protests erupted in Muslim countries over a pathetically awful anti-Islamic film. Each example differs from the others, but all illustrate an abjectness. Rushdie wrote a novel worthy of critique but instead engendered unbridled hatred and unqualified celebrity. Pussy Riot exposed the illusion of civil society and were made, summarily, victims of the absence of law in Russia. The protests by groups of Muslims degenerated into violence against innocents while their collective frustration was made into an abstraction by a process in Western liberal thought that treats challenges to its own assumptions as barely worthy of contempt.
In 2007, the University Press of Kentucky published a book I wrote entitled, “Freedom to Offend.” I wrote about the decline of the nation’s strictest censorship culture in New York City and the way that trend influenced the development of the city’s movie culture. I studied the collusion between the movie industry, the Catholic Church, and government officials–all working in some harmony to get what each wanted. For Hollywood, that meant easy profits; for the Church, that meant the ruse of obedience; and for the government, that meant placating constituents. By the early 1960s, this jig was up and the censorial regime collapsed under its own illogical weight. The straw, so to speak, that broke this camel’s back was the realization that moviegoers rejected the protection censors promised to provide. In short, the constituencies “protected” by the censors embraced a freedom to be offended.
That notion is one misunderstood by Sam Harris, our contemporary Cassandra whose passionate defense of freedom to offend anyone rests on a belief that such freedom has a singular definition and that the holders of that definition can determine what offends it. In other words, it is the freedom that is offended by those who act in ways disconsonant with Harris’s understanding. In one essay, Harris argues that religion (his all-purpose offender of freedom) is like sports because both are generic terms that fail to describe what practitioners actually do. Only a someone raised in contemporary western culture would imagine that sports carries the same transcendent purpose as religion–indeed, in America it is possible to worship through sports in a way similar to religion, and many should probably find that a problem.
Here’s the difference between Harris, Pussy Riot and Rushdie. Rushdie wrote his novel with the purpose of exploring the power of revelation–something that has no corollary in science or the regime of rational thought subscribed to by Harris. Rushdie’s biggest regret was not his inability to predict the response his book instigated but that he had, at one point, backed away from the seriousness of his own argument and agreed to issue a statement that the targeting of him was a critique of his own insensitivity to religious pluralism. Like Harris’s abstract understanding of freedom, Rushdie’s statement made no sense, ultimately, because he could no more defend or define religious pluralism than Harris can lead us to a world in which “freedom” is to be protected from all who would offend it. Likewise, Pussy Riot entered the most important church in Russia in order to expose a corrupt state fully aware that that same state would slap them down in defense of the abstract notion of the state.
What I saw in the much less violent and consequential struggle over censorship and movie culture in the 1960s was the same drift toward abstractions. If it was wrong for the censors to protect the virtue of the public or to legislate against blasphemy (as if the state had a way to define that term) it was equally problematic for the defenders of a new movie culture to claim that art was exempt from withering attacks because it was ART. Likewise, the alternative to a world of in which all offenses provoke violence is not, as it seems Harris would have it, a world of unfettered freedom, whatever that means. In this way, Harris is not much different from George W. Bush who boldly declared in his second inaugural address that we would seek to end tyranny. Harris could be the corollary to that illusion, seeking an end to the notion that we can be offended. After all, just as Bush’s doctrine blurred the line between ending tyranny by imposing an American version of it, Harris would end offenses to freedom by deny those offended the freedom to be offended.