This Week In The Right Not To Be Offended — University College London Edition

Listen to me: no sensible and well-ordered society can recognize a right to be free from offense. It's unprincipled and mercurial, a celebration of the rule of subjective reaction over the rule of law. It's an open invitation to censorship-by-heckler's-veto. It chills satire, parody, sharp retorts, hard truths, and uncomfortable revelations. George Bernard Shaw says "all great truths begin as blasphemies" — so where is the room for exploration of truth in a society that lets every entitled group define its own blasphemies and demand that everyone avoid uttering them? Going to courts complaining of fee-fees is no basis for a system of government.

Why the mini-rant? It's because today, courtesy of Ophelia Benson, I learned of a loathsome example of the assertion that we all have the right not to be offended, and an illustration of how it can be used as a weapon of suppression. The Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London has a Facebook page, and on that page they posted a picture as part of an invitation to a party:

And you know what happened next:

Today, they were sent a message by a student union offical. The message, I’m told, is confidential and so can’t be reproduced here, but stated that ‘a number of complaints’ had bene made about the use of the image – partly because contrary to Islamic teachings it depicts the Prophet Mohammad, and partly because it depicts him around alcohol. The union then told the atheist society to remove the image immediately and inform them once this had been done.

The AHSH has put up a petition soliciting defense of their free expression. By contrast, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association (AMSA) has attacked not only the cartoon but blogs commenting on the incident, asserting that the SHSH has "confused freedom of speech with the freedom to insult":

Numerous Muslims wrote in their individual capacities to the UCL Union, complaining of this depiction of Muhammad, citing grounds of religious offense. The UCL Union in turn contacted UCLU ASH and asked them to remove the cartoon from their Facebook page. The UCLU ASH has refused and an e-petition has also been set up by them to “Defend Freedom of Expression at UCL” with particular reference to this debacle. Additionally one individual has written an account on his blog of this debacle. This blog, entitled “Atheist Face Muslim-led censorship from UCL Union” has now been linked to the UCLU ASH Facebook page and has thereby become widely available. The blog itself has purposefully included another twelve panels depicting Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both) in scenarios such as comparing twitter followers, playing music at an “open mic night” and sleeping in the same bed together. The UCLU ASH has publicised the entire proceedings to such an extent that Richard Dawkins has recently made a post on his website, commenting on the issue. No doubt, it won’t be long before alas, the newspapers get a hold of it.

The AMSA grudgingly concedes that bloggers are within their rights to comment about the incident, but asserts that the ASHS should have been bound by the feelings of others:

In this particular case, when at first the cartoon was uploaded, it could have been mistaken as unintentional offense. When certain Muslims voiced their offense over the issue, for any civil, well-mannered individual or group of individuals, it should then be a question as to the feelings of others and the cartoons should then have been removed.

The AMSA is contemptuous of the notion that the images are satirical. To them, expression is only satire if it elevates discussion of which they approve:

When examined however, it is clear that these cartoons are not satirical in the least. Satire is characterised by the bringing to light of vices for the purpose of initiating reform within the individual or group of individuals who are satirised. Was this the purpose of cartoons with Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both) lying in bed together, or comparing the number of twitter followers they have? It is clear that the purpose of the cartoon panels is not to initiate serious discussion regarding the holy founders of either religion. The cartoons only have one purpose-to mock and deride and poke fun. If Christians or Muslims take offense at this, it is not for Atheists to rejoinder with “they could offend only those actively seeking to be offended”. It is not for Atheists to decide what will or will not offend believers of different religions.

Finally, after repeatedly disavowing the label of censor, AMSA advocates official censorship:

It may be however that the UCL Union is within their rights to request the UCLU ASH to remove the cartoon. The UCLU ASH is a branch of the Union and as such must abide by a particular code of conduct set out by the Union. It should be remembered that an act must be judged by its intention. It is obvious that the purpose of these cartoons is not to initiate discussion or reasonable criticism of Christianity or Islam but to insult and poke fun at. If the Union therefore judges this action as being deliberately hurtful and asks the UCLU ASH to remove the cartoon, it may be that UCLU ASH does not have reasonable grounds to resist. The Union must look to the sentiments of the whole of its student population and, being a branch of the Union, the UCLU ASH must abide by that decision.

Listen, I bid you, to the classic apologia for censorship, suitable for both majorities and minorities: officials ought to hear the people and yield to their feelings in determining what speech is permitted.

A student union is a fair distance from a national government. But there is substantial risk that more governments will yield to pressure to adopt the notion that there is a right not to be offended. Moreover, there is a real danger that the concept will infect the culture to ridiculous and lamentable ends. And it's not only people drawing Mohammed at risk and not just Muslims the potential censors — the array of potentially hurt feelings ranges from the controversial to the sublimely ridiculous, and the vast majority of the potential censors are "us," not "them."

For free people, for decent people, for self-respecting people, the remedy for offensive speech is more speech — whether that responsive speech be calm and reasoned or be a rhetorical kick in the nuts.

By the way, nothing I say should be interpreted as suggesting that the mere expression of offense is censorious. It isn't. It's more speech. Its fairness may be debated, its accuracy may be questioned, its underlying principles might be probed, but saying "that was offensive and you're an asshole" is not tyranny. If you think it is, you're an idiot.

Edit: To be clear, though I think the AMSA statement supports censorship, they were not the source of the demands that the picture be taken down, apparently.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. CTrees says

    As I understand it, a Muslim found this picture offensive. He found the picture on the Facebook page of an atheist student group. It seems unlikely that the sort of person who would be offended by this picture would have little reason to be on said atheist student group's Facebook page besides to look for things by which to be offended. I mean, I suppose it's possible, but I can't think there are many religious types so uptight that they'd get this offended by bad drawings, who would stick around such a page because they liked to read what was posted. If I'm correct, we're stuck with "Muslim goes looking for reasons to be offended, gets offended, tries to censor students." I just think, if you're the president of Iran taking a day trip to the Holocaust museum, you aren't there because you think it'll be a fun and informative afternoon.

    Now… If this picture had been turned into a poster, and been put up around campus, in public areas? I have a harder time arguing against its removal, simply because one does not need to go looking for things to be offended by, to happen upon it and be offended. I'm on the fence, there, because the public posting would seem calculated to offend, in the same way a badly drawn poster of people in blackface might. I have a hard time siding with people who are selecting their actions for the purposes of dickishness, basically.

    I suppose there is a possibility that one of the normal members started sending tips to Muslims of low fortitude, potentially so as to troll the group as a whole. This… actually seems like something a college student would do "for the lulz."

  2. Tim says

    First, who is to say that is the prophet Muhammad? If I am not mistaken, there are many, many, many guys named Muhammad. It could be one of them.

    Second, who is to say he is drinking alcohol? That could just as easily be a glass of Coke. Or, if they prefer, dirty river water.

    To sum up: The picture could be Jesus Gonzales of L.A. (a hippy if I have ever seen one) and Muhammad Rogers of Detroit (dressed in his garb for this evening performance at the local community theater's offering of "Lawrence of Arabia") enjoying a delicious and refreshing glass of Coca-Cola in a harmonious and multi-cultural discussion of the current field of GOP candidates.

  3. says

    I would argue that, at least where the US government is concerned, that yielding to such pressures is a very possible outcome if we just sit on our hands. The business of government in the US is about running for and winning elections.

    The goat ball-gargling asshats who like to complain about this stuff do so loudly, and they vote. There is no way, [i]today[/i] such an issue could turn a federal election. But the climate where it could isn't necessarily that far off. We must fight against this trend and educate where possible. Where education is not possible, we will probably have to turn to public ridicule.

  4. says

    @Grandy: Excuse me? Goat balls, grilled or fried, are very tasty. I've never seen them 'gargled' as that would be a very unproductive way to consume them. You might try them with a really hoppy ale and surprise yourself!

  5. delurking says

    "confused freedom of speech with the freedom to insult"…

    No, sirs, we have not confused freedom of speech with the freedom to insult. You seem to be ignorant of the obvious fact that the freedom to insult is part of the freedom of speech; simple logic shows that without it there can be no freedom of speech. Lest there be some misunderstanding about our intentions with that last sentence, let me make clear that it is intended to offend you, in the interest of generating useful and enlightening discussion about the freedom of speech in general. We think that when you realize that we not just disagree with you, but find your position moronic, you will then think a little more deeply about your statement in order to try to justify it. Either you yourselves will be enlightened by this process, or you will demonstrate substandard intelligence and then we can ignore you.

  6. says

    A British student union is not quite as far from the national government as you might think. UK student unions serve a role similar to a labor union for the students, and while not officially partisan, my Labourite friend certainly knew the party affiliation of everyone in the student government at my uni (University of Kent, late 2000s) and was concerned with the prospect that the Tories might win the union elections. The individual student unions all belong to the National Union of Students, and the NUS lobbies Parliament like any interest group would.

  7. Acleron says

    Unfortunately, this sort of reaction has been encouraged here in the UK by many supine politicians. People have the right to be offended, they have the right to feel bad about having their stupidities publicised. They should never have the right to do anything about it except to argue their own position. But in the UK and much of Europe, it is easy to have something taken down, deleted or silenced.

  8. marco73 says

    The AMSA is actively searching for offence, in order to increase their power on campus.
    "Look here Mr Dean, our tiger team searched every page on the University web site all last night and found one image that offends us! Bow to our power!"
    All it would take is for someone in administration to give them a good John Cleese dressing down:
    "Look here you bloody ingrates! I've got more important matters than your namby-pamby feelings! Now get out of my office before I sneeze in your general direction!"
    But we all know that since England has become a spine-free zone, adminstration will harumph and cower and give in, and censor the athiests.
    So Ken, has anyone contacted you yet demanding that you take down the Jesus and Mo cartoon? Since they have probably also read some other entries in this site, I'll bet they don't have to guts to take you on

  9. says

    Marco73 wondered if anyone contacted Ken demanding that he take down the Jesus and Mo cartoon. I laughed out loud. …still chuckling.

    It'd be like taking a baseball bat to a neutron star. You can hit it, but it will eat you. Good luck.

  10. Dustin says

    I always find that argument so strange… that it's a freedom of speech rather than a freedom to offend.

    What freaking value is there in a freedom of speech that is watered down to the point where you can only say stuff that doesn't bother anybody? That makes no freaking sense.

    You need a freedom of speech *only* when that speech pisses somebody off. Even the most dominated subject of the worst tyrant had the 'freedom' to say things that doesn't piss anyone off.

  11. PSBUH (Pig Shit Be Upon Him) says

    It is clear that the purpose of the cartoon panels is not to initiate serious discussion regarding the holy founders of either religion.

    And yet, somehow, someway, that's actually what is happening, innit?

  12. says

    In Pakistan, where most Ahmaddiyas live, it is a crime punishable by three years in prison as well as a fine, under Section 298 of the Penal Code, for Ahmadiyya to behave as Muslims behave, to identify themselves as Muslims, to proselytize, or "in any manner whatsoever" to offend the religious feelings of Muslims. You'd think they would understand why censorship of "offensive" statements is such a terrible idea.

  13. Chalkie says

    ^^ This. Right to freedom of speech makes no sense if you have to clam up because someone doesn't like what you say, and that includes being offended by it.

    Now, the presidential debates would get really surreal if democrats and republicans could apply this standard to each other, and possibly entertaining, but at the end of the day, pointless.

  14. B Chandler says

    What if you take offense at being censored? Wouldn't that create some kind of rift in the space-time continuum?

  15. markm says

    "What freaking value is there in a freedom of speech that is watered down to the point where you can only say stuff that doesn't bother anybody? That makes no freaking sense."

    You are missing the point. "Anything that bothers anybody" is never actually banned – rather, an elite gets to decide *which* speech is offensive enough to be banned. And once they have firmly established the principle that, say, a crucifix floating in urine is not "offensive" but a cartoon depicting Mohammed is, because they say so …

  16. David Schwartz says

    "When examined however, it is clear that these cartoons are not satirical in the least. Satire is characterised by the bringing to light of vices for the purpose of initiating reform within the individual or group of individuals who are satirised." That's exactly what these cartoons are doing. They point out the evil (and absuridty) of the vice at responding to offense with calls for censorhsip. And I'm pretty sure they would consider initiating reform within the groups satirized as success beyond their wildest expectations. These target of the satire is those who would take offense at these depictions.