Stephen Carter

Offended by something you read? Don't demand an apology, argue back

The front page of the new issue of satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo entitled C'est Reparti (Here we go again), is displayed at a kiosk in Nice on Feb 25, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
The front page of the new issue of satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo entitled C'est Reparti (Here we go again), is displayed at a kiosk in Nice on Feb 25, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

I FIND myself oddly unmoved by the chorus of critics demanding an apology from the organisers of the Garland, Texas, exhibition where two attackers were shot dead last weekend. I'm not suggesting that free speech means never having to say you're sorry. But our vision of what demands apology and what does not has grown dangerously selective.

Regular readers will know that I am a near-absolutist when it comes to the marketplace of ideas. I have mentioned before the contretemps during my undergraduate years at Stanford over the views of Nobel laureate William Shockley on the relative intellectual capacities of blacks and whites.

Many among my confreres wanted his head on the proverbial platter. I wanted to hear his theories debated instead. I had the opportunity twice: once at a campus forum, where he squared off against an eminent geneticist, and a second time when Shockley met the editorial board of the Stanford Daily, and I was able to challenge him directly. I learnt far more from those two encounters than I would have from any sort of ban. I wasn't interested in an apology. I was interested in serious argument about ideas.

Nowadays, many people seem to think that mockery doesn't raise any ideas worth debating. This helps explain why so many paeans to Charlie Hebdo append the disclaimer "Although I don't agree with..." But the history of making fun in order to make a point is as old as history itself. Every major world religion has a tradition of humour - including at its own expense. Alas, we live in an era when, rather than acknowledge this simple truth, we too often strain to make insupportable distinctions.

Over lunch a few years ago, a Yale colleague of mine was at pains to explain why Jews but not Muslims might be freely mocked: The issue turns out to be not minority status but influence. Jews have it, Muslims don't. Had my colleague not been Jewish, I might have put so bizarre a distinction down to anti-Semitism. A more charitable explanation is that this was simply the latest iteration in the popular campus game of explaining why some people but not others merit protection from offence.

I was once asked by a leading theological journal to write an article. The guidelines required that I avoid using gendered pronouns when referring to God. I was perplexed. I don't believe that God possesses gender as we understand it, but in the traditional canon of my faith, God has revealed Himself as male. So I decided to pass. When I mentioned this episode to another colleague, he told me I was wrong. Using gendered pronouns would offend many readers, and my point would not get across. I asked him whether in that case we should crack down on taking God's name in vain. For many of us, the casual misuse of God's name - especially when combined with words of cursing or vulgarity - is disturbing, and even at times depressing.

My colleague conceded that I had made a good point.

But he was wrong. My point wasn't good; his was bad. We've had some experience crafting rules to limit expression that offends religious believers, and none of it is attractive. My colleague was making the very mistake history condemns and advocates of anti-hate-speech rules embrace, searching for ways to transform instinct into regulation: Surely, we can protect the powerless from offence?

The trouble is that such prejudices, once indulged, are infinitely malleable. Hairs will be split, forests will be missed for the trees, angels will dance on the head of a pin, all in the service of discovering differences among things that are the same. This certainty alone is reason enough to be wary of hate-speech legislation, whether devised on campus, in the state House or in an international forum. Inevitably what one ends up with is the thrusting of coercive authority into the hands of those who are every bit as prejudiced in their preferences as anyone else. I couldn't possibly be trusted with such power; neither could you.

When those who offend by their speech are asked to apologise, we are often indulging these distinctions. And the distinctions, pursued to their root, can become absurd. Consider once again the taking of God's name in vain. After I mentioned the business with the theological journal in a lecture at another campus, I was assured by a student that although a white Protestant would have no right to be offended by such words, I as a black Protestant would. Is the issue numbers? Influence? History? One can find literature embracing all of these and many more. What's fascinating is to imagine the apology the student must have thought I was due: "My blasphemy was aimed entirely at white religious believers. I deeply regret my unintentional offence to believers who are people of colour." Thanks but no thanks.

A universe of discourse that cherishes such distinctions has set itself at war with modernity. Like the mediaeval church, the theory supposes that we will build a better society by constructing a bubble into which disagreeable ideas will never intrude. In this sense, the college student who doesn't believe that her school should host a debate over abortion is running in direct parallel with the baker who doesn't want to cater a gay wedding. Each is tilting against the windmills of modernity that for well over a century now have blown away one wall after another with gales of scepticism and counter-argument.

It's easy to sympathise with the desire to create that bubble of psychic calm, to keep at arm's length a world seen as threatening to the values at one's core. But neither regulation nor apology can long cloak the truth that sooner or later the protective bubble pops, and in sweeps the real world, with all of its vulgarity and confusion and diversity. The clash of ideas is often painful. Out of that pain, however, springs courage and strength and even growth. That's why we're usually at our best when, instead of seeking an apology, we argue back.