The Importance of Being Offended

Safe Space

Over the course of the past few months I’ve seen a lot of people (on both sides of whatever fence you decide to put up) discuss how offended they are by someone exercising their rights in one way or another. I’ll go ahead and state that there are a lot of things people do that I disagree with, but I’ll also unequivocally state that I’m incredibly grateful that we live in a country where people can exercise those rights, and do so in controversial fashion. It’s important to realize that the First Amendment wasn’t written to protect agreeable or incontrovertible topics – those don’t need protecting. It’s equally important to note the First Amendment’s place in the Bill of Rights for several reasons.

First, nothing in the Bill of Rights was included in the original Constitution because the original framers considered everything in the original ten amendments to be the kind of things that go without saying. They also didn’t write “eat if you get hungry” and “don’t forget to breathe” because, well… they figured you’d know what to do. However, after realizing that some things were so important they needed to be explicitly clarified, they wrote the Bill of Rights.

And the very first thing to be explicitly protected were controversial expressions of religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly, and criticizing the government – i.e., pretty much blanket covering everything people like to get offended by.

Most majority Muslim countries have blasphemy laws protecting only or mainly Islam. In Pakistan, article 295 of the penal code stipulates that “derogatory remarks” about the prophet Muhammad “by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly” shall be punishable by death. One woman, Aasia Bibi, was actually sentenced to death under this article. In a number of Muslim countries, such protections are included in the terms and conditions of internet service providers.

Christians love to point out how backwards these laws are, but then we see something like this: In Britain, a blasphemy law that protected Christianity alone was repealed only in 2008. In South Carolina it’s illegal to perform work on Sunday. Thankfully, there’s an exception in there (only for Charleston County, though) for folks who believe the true Sabbath is on Saturday – they can apply the law towards that day of the week. In California, animals are prohibited from mating within 1,500 feet of a place of worship. Last year a lawmaker in Montana tried to pass a law that would make it illegal (punishable by prison time) to wear yoga pants in public).

No religious group or political party has a corner on idiocy. Yes, the exercise of freedom can be offensive – but that’s the point of freedom. Freedom should not be inhibited unless it actually impedes upon the rights of others; until it reaches that point, it’s completely legitimate and should be (and is, here) protected.

This was the approximate conversation between me and a buddy when I first heard about the whole Colin Kaepernick issue:

Him: “Dude, did you hear what Colin Kaepernick did??”
Me: “Who’s Colin Kaepernick?”
Him: “He’s a quarterback for the 49ers. He refused to stand for the national anthem!!”
Me: “Oh.”
Him: “What do you mean, ‘Oh’? You’re a veteran! You’re patriotic! Doesn’t this offend you??”
Me: “No.”
Him: “Why not???”
Me: “Because literally nothing Mr. Pumpernickel does affects me at all. I didn’t even know who he was until two seconds ago.”
Him: “But he did it because he says blacks are oppressed in America!”
Me: “OK. That makes him an idiot. I still don’t really care.”

And that was pretty much the end of the discussion. What one entitled black person in a league comprised of 68% black people who makes hundreds of millions of dollars believes doesn’t concern me in the least. I disagree with him. I think he’s wrong. I think he’s a moron engaging in attention-seeking behavior.

So?

And that’s the point. Being okay with people doing offensive things that don’t affect your rights is required to be free.

Stephen Covey, in his book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, wrote about two circles: a circle of concern, and a circle of influence. One of the things he noted about successful people who were generally happy in life is that their circle of concern (i.e., all of the things they cared about and allowed to affect their happiness) generally approximated their circle of influence (i.e., the things they could directly affect). People who are frustrated and unhappy are constantly offended by people and issues far beyond their circle of influence.

If you can be okay with other people acting in an offensive way, as long as it doesn’t actually impede anyone else’s rights (and the right to not be offended doesn’t exist, BTW), then you can truly participate in this wonderful thing we have freedom. If you can’t be okay with that, then realize that you’re no different than the people on the opposite side of whatever issue you’ve chosen who want to create a safe space by banning you – there’s no different between the two parties.

Be offended. It’ll be okay.

Keep Calm, And Carry On

In 1939, as Britain prepared for their involvement in the second world war, experts predicted air attacks on major metropolitan areas. A preemptive public relations campaign was launched in an effort to raise and sustain the morale of British citizens during the indescribable horror of what would be known as The Blitz. The most poignant surviving reminder of this morale-raising campaign is a widely recognized poster with a simple phrase: “Keep Calm And Carry On.”

Keep Calm & Carry On

As I write this, I have just returned to a hotel room from which I was evacuated due to some burnt toast down the hall setting off the fire alarm; it interrupted my nap, it inconvenienced my morning… but that was it. I cannot imagine being raised from bed by sirens, night after night, to sit in a crowded subway tube listening to bombs going off overhead, not knowing if your family, friends, and home would survive the night. When faced with an inconvenient fire alarm with no real repercussions I can keep calm and carry on, but The Blitz? It’s a simple message, true. But is it too simple? Is it simple to the point of being naïve, or even childish?

Yesterday fifty people were killed when a shooter opened fire in a crowded night club in Orlando. A terrorist inflicted mass murder on Americans, and within minutes liberals were already crying for more restrictive gun laws and conservatives were demanding retribution. The focus was a panicked, emotion-driven frenzy of demanded action. In the midst of this impassioned, agitated turmoil, perhaps it would do us good to remember a simple lesson from the past.

Keep calm, and carry on.

In 2001 our world was rocked by another attack that changed the face of America. In the aftermath of that we forgot the lessons of the poster from the Blitz and we demanded action – and act we did. We surrendered essential liberties, possibly forever; we engaged in torturing innocents to “preserve our way of life;” we passed legislation which enabled the indefinite detention of American citizens without being formally charged; for the first time in American history we authorized the assassination of American citizens without a trial; we began spying on Americans en masse; we systematically deconstructed the Constitution in the name of patriotism; we placed normal Americans on “no fly” lists and restricted their travel without charging or convicting them of anything; we’re now entertaining a presidential candidate from one of the main political parties who believes we should discriminate based upon religion. In short, this flurry of action accomplished but one thing: we became something America was not. We lost who we were.

Yes, Orlando was an act of war. It was an act of terror. It was an act of heinous cowardice perpetrated against innocent, unarmed civilians in a dastardly way. Now everyone has a different solution to the problem.

Woah, slow down there. Wait a second. Who said this was a problem?

Certainly it is bad. It is, without a doubt, something no sane person ever wants to see occur once, let alone ever again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a problem that needs to be solved. In the same way the Blitz in London wasn’t a problem, but a symptom – a temporary condition faced by a united nation mobilized against what it believed to be unspeakable evil. The Blitz was merely a symptom of good fighting against evil. And in the face of that, the people knew that they must unite, support each other, and… keep calm, and carry on. This was not a problem which demanded an altered course simply because they faced opposition – it was a symptom that they were headed in the right direction.

Facing the horrors of the Blitz didn’t mean they were doing something wrong. Nowhere in life should we expect that doing everything right means that life suddenly ceases to be hard, or difficult, or sometimes outright painful. As Captain Picard on Star Trek once said, “It is possible to commit no errors and still lose. That is not weakness… that is life.”

It is possible to commit no errors and still lose

Yes, yesterday in Orlando we lost something. We lost lives. We lost friends and family. We lost a sense of peace, of safety, of harmony. The closer we are to the madness that occurred the more our world was rocked. But in this moment of tumult, of terror, of pain, we should know that this is not a problem, but rather a symptom. And in this case, it is a symptom of something good: freedom.

Thomas Jefferson warned us of this when he wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This quote is most often used to conjure images of active warfare, but such is not always the context in which it must appear. Jefferson knew that freedom is a dangerous aspiration, for to live free is to abandon many comforts and safeties of what can only be known by living as a slave. Living free sometimes costs us something.

The reason that terrorists engage in terrorism is to create a sense of fear – and thereby incite action which causes us to voluntarily surrender our liberties, our freedoms, and our independence. Franklin Roosevelt once said that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” We would do well to remember that. When our world is rocked by senseless, hateful fear, we can choose to focus on that, or we can remember something else.

We can remember that these Americans were targeted because they were exercising liberties unknown in most of the world.

We could guarantee that this would never happen again by forbidding gatherings, by outlawing nightclubs, by telling Americans that their actions should be dictated by the constant, paralyzing fear of the worst possibility, however remote, that could ever happen. We can spread dissension by hating Muslims, or people with guns, or gays. We can allow fear to divide and conquer us as we assume violence against us is a “problem” that needs to be fixed with “action.”

Or we can keep calm, and carry on.

We can refuse to be cowed into submission by terror. We can demand that our way of life not be constricted, denied, and shaped by fear. We can go forward from here with the rallying cry, “Try what you will, but you will not terrorize us out of our freedom!”

These Americans were killed because they were exercising their liberty. Let us not dishonor them by surrendering our own. Let us honor their memories by remaining free, by living as Americans, by demonstrating with our lives that we aspire to something higher. In the face of fear, let us be courageous. While others demand action, let us remain calm. When this is labeled a problem, let us recognize it is but the price of remaining free.

Let us keep calm, and carry on.

Dangerous Freedom