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Please follow the link to the Word page; there I discuss everyday words that are misused.

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Freedom of Expression: Giving Offense

Let us operate upon a hypothetical situation. Let us suppose I live in a country where many people believe in magic. I will call this place Banzania. Suppose I, an educated and intelligent Banzanian, learn that among my neighbors are some who believe that albinos — who are often seen in Banzania — are not human beings but magical beings. Suppose I learn that some of those who believe that albinos are magical are wearing the parts of an albino as an amulet or as a charm. Suppose a neighbor tells me he is wearing — in an amulet — the ears of an albino because the neighbor believes everyone who eats some piece of an albino or who carries a piece of an albino will enjoy wealth and health forever.

How do I make my neighbors understand that their beliefs are depraved? What do I do to keep my neighbors from killing or maiming albinos? How do I persuade them that albinos are not magical?

I know I cannot bluntly tell my neighbors the truth. People who believe something fervently do not want to hear the truth. Sometimes believers torture and kill people who tell the truth. Thus Oscar Wilde advised, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”

Let us suppose I asked my neighbors how they know albinos are magical, and my neighbors replied that a shaman, for the price of one chicken, offered to tell them a secret that would make them rich; then they gave the shaman one chicken, and he told them that albinos were magical.

Let us suppose I asked my neighbors how they know the shaman is telling them the truth. Suppose my neighbors responded that everyone knows about shamans and everyone knows shamans tell the truth and, besides, my neighbors say they had a strange feeling when the shaman told them the secret. Suppose my neighbors said that their strange feeling comes to them always when someone is telling the truth; so they are sure that what the shaman told them is true.

Let us suppose my neighbors told me they were offended by my questions. Let us suppose my neighbors told me that I needed to be more respectful of the shaman and more respectful of their feelings, which they know are a reliable guide to what is true and what is good. Let us suppose my neighbors told me that they found my questions provocative and insulting, and that they were thinking about whether anyone would miss me if I disappeared or if I turned up headless one morning.

I hope you will discern that my neighbors have, by their remarks, tried to silence me. They have implied that I am impertinent to question them. They have intimated that my disappearance would not trouble them. They have made the albinos a lesser concern for me than my safety. If the citizens of Banzania esteemed the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech and the right to give offense, I might be inclined to seek help from other acquaintances or from the authorities to persuade my neighbors that harming albinos is wrong; but let us suppose the citizens of Banzania do not esteem those rights. Let us suppose no one will help me. What do I do?

Suppose I put up a big sign in front of my home that said, “DO NOT HARM ALBINOS! They are not magical! The shaman is a fraudster.” Then suppose my neighbors told me I had to take the sign down and destroy it. Suppose, when I asked why I should take the sign down, my neighbors said my sign was an insult to their deeply-held beliefs about shamans and about albinos. Suppose my neighbors said my lies were disrespectful and hurt their feelings. Suppose my neighbors said, if I wanted to live a harmonious and peaceful life or if I just wanted to keep my head, I had to show more respect to those who know they are better than I am.

Suppose I took down my sign about the albinos but put up a sign that said, “For one chicken, I will tell you how to be rich and I will give you a piece of a magic thistle.” Suppose I have only just erected my new sign when the shaman comes running, and he tells me to take the sign down. Suppose, when I ask him why I should take the sign down, he tells me I am disrespecting him by stealing his idea for selling a secret. Suppose the shaman tells me my sign is a mockery of the shaman’s power and authority in the neighborhood. Suppose the shaman tells me, if I do not take the sign down, he will cast the evil eye upon me and summon all his relatives, his admirers and perhaps some of my neighbors to teach me a lesson about how to respect those who are powerful and violent. What do I do?

I hope you will discern that my attempts to challenge the perversity and the depravity of the community in which I live have brought me into conflict with a mob. The mob acts as a servant both to those who are privileged and to those who expect they will soon become privileged. I have no hope of overcoming the mob without a powerful ally. What do I do?

In a civilized society, I would have the forces that uphold law and order on my side because those forces would defend the rights — like the freedom of speech — that benefit society as a whole. I would have the bulk of the population on my side because the citizenry would be hostile to any interference with the rights that make a civilized society possible. I am, however, in Banzania, where I am alone against the mob. What do I do?

Alas, I cannot prevail. I cannot save any albinos until I persuade the people who are hunting them to stop hunting them. I cannot dissuade the hunters without communicating my thoughts to them. I cannot communicate my thoughts to the hunters because they will take offense, and they are likely to attack me. Consequently, I cannot make my society less primitive, less superstitious and less violent.

I offer my story to illustrate that intellectual and moral progress is impossible where citizens are not free to say what they wish. Where citizens have to fear for their lives if they offend the despotic, the privileged, the superstitious, the perverse or the depraved, a civilized society cannot flourish.1 Where the freedom of expression and the freedom to offend are not revered, idiocy reigns and madness governs.2 Without the right to condemn wrongs, citizens cannot effect change, and a society cannot become more reasonable and more humane.3,4

1 Superstition Fuels Spike In Murder And Mutilation Of Albinos (2015)

2In June 2015, a group, perhaps including policemen, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India burned alive journalist Jagendra Singh because he used a Facebook page to expose wrongdoing in his community.

3 'We Are Being Hunted Like Animals': Malawi’s Albino People Are Threatened By Human Poachers (2016)

4 'My Neighbour Hacked Off My Hands' (2017)

This page was last updated by John Hosh on 18 March 2019.

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