King's Evangelical Divinity School

1 July 2010

We Need to Get Over Being Offended

Yesterday's Daily Telegraph reports a new French law which fines and even imprisons individuals for insulting their spouse. Being charged for what you say, of course, is nothing new, but today's politically correct society has moved far beyond issues such as perjury, treasonable speech or threats to an actual effort to legislate against offending others. For example, just this week a council worker was found guilty by magistrates under the Public Order Act and fined £620 court costs for insulting a work colleague. The  circumstances were rather unpleasant, but I am far from convinced this should ever have reached a courtroom.

Now of course some insults and taunts can be hurtful, spiteful and even downright nasty and abusive. But is it really possible to legislate against offending someone? To be sure I understand a decent, civilised society does not want to see unnecessary insulting or abusive behaviour. Yet people say all manner of things and it seems patently unrealistic to think you can legislate to stop people saying things simply on the grounds they may offend others, whether by virtue of their gender, age, sexuality, religion, or a myriad other circumstances. Seeking to curtail genuine hatred possibly leading to violence is quite one thing, but wanting to protect everyone from being offended is quite another. Be that as it may, (il)liberal fascism's political correctness crusade seeks to do just that: outlaw offending others, even if that means creating so-called speech crime. The grave danger, of course, is the gradual erosion of free speech.

But what do I know about it? Some might argue that as a middle-aged, white, heterosexual male I'm unlikely to have experienced first-hand serious instances of racist, sexist or ageist abuse, or insults by virtue of my health or sexuality. But that aside, I do regularly experience abuse as a direct consequence of my faith, whether first-hand or via the media from those who are deeply angry towards Christianity or religion in general. Try reading some comments, too, left after some online newspaper article or other reporting a story which involves Christianity or Christians. Worse (for the believer) are those handful of people (usually in the Arts) who - now that blasphemy laws have by and large disappeared - do all they possibly can to be as offensive as possible towards Christianity, usually by insulting Christ in some quite outrageous manner. Note how they think long and hard about doing so (usually choosing not to go there) when saying anything disrespectful about the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

So how should Christians respond to such offense? Well, we're going to be insulted from time to time regardless (indeed such revile brings great blessing, Mt 5:11-12), while in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed us simply to turn the other cheek. That's why I'm not a particularly strong fan of legislating to protect Christianity. I just want a level playing field so we're all treated the same. You can't legislate against being offended.

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