July 25, 2011

I Am Offended

Last week I wrote a post entitled Invasion of the Talking Vaginas. It was about a campaign for Summer's Eve (what an awful name) in which human hands represented talking vaginas.

I ended the post with this comment: I don't hate this campaign because it's offensive. I hate it because it's done so witlessly.

That same day, an article appeared in The New York Times about the California Milk Processor Board having pulled a campaign for milk that poked fun at women with PMS. This campaign offended great swaths of people. It created a huge uproar. It was pulled and the usual mea culpas were issued.

I loved the campaign.  I didn't love the campaign because it was inoffensive. I loved it because it was artfully done .

In fact, while the the campaign was assuredly sexist, it was way funnier and more intelligently conceived than the dreadful spoof of it which appeared in Funny or Die.

I am afraid that we are in a slow but inexorable slide toward the erosion of free speech. To a significant degree, this erosion is due to the erroneous belief that people have a right to be free of offense.

In fact, our constitution guarantees exactly the opposite. It guarantees us the right to offend whomever the hell we want whenever the hell we want to. That's what free speech means.

Our courts have held that as a general principle commercial speech enjoys similar protections as individual speech. This means that businesses and advertisers have the same right to offend that individuals do.

I happen to hold very liberal views about individual liberties, including free speech. But there is a branch of "liberalism" these days that has become very intolerant. These people are humorless scolds who are very easily offended and demand instant redress for their injured sensitivities.

There is also a branch of conservatism that thinks we need to be protected from "dangerous" ideas. Well, I appreciate your concern, but if it's all the same to you, I'd like to draw my own conclusions.

The tricky part is this. Government is prohibited from censoring what we can say. But well-meaning citizens, believing they are protecting society from dangerous, offensive, or prejudicial ideas, have substantial power to censor by applying economic pressure.

In the internet age, it has become much easier to band together to exert pressure for the purpose of silencing ideas we don't like. And we have every right to do so. But before we exercise this right we need to think seriously about the implications.

I don't believe our sensitivities are so profound that they trump someone else's right to offend us. I don't believe we want to allow the limits of commercial discourse to be determined by the loudest bullies on the web.

Do ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes cause offense? Absolutely.

Should we act to silence them? Absolutely not.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I am very curious about the reaction of readers. If you have an opinion either way, please leave a comment.

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