Friday, March 23, 2007

The Right to Not Be Offended

If you read the Constitution (something few people do, although they firmly believe they know what it says), you will find that it enumerates a long series of rights granted to the citizens of the United States. The Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) grants rights of free speech and assembly, the press, religious belief and expression, private ownership of weapons, freedom from 'cruel and unusual punishments,' and so on.

The Constitution does not grant you The Right to Not be Offended.

I've been thinking about this topic for a long time, and was prompted to write this little essay by an article from the San Francisco Bay Times forwarded to me by my friend Jake. The article details the apology tendered by author and radio personality Garrison Keillor for remarks he made which were interpreted as being a slur against homosexuals. The Keillor passage in question is this:

"Gay marriage will produce a whole new string of hyphenated relatives. In addition to the ex-stepson and ex-in-laws and your wife’s first husband’s second wife, there now will be Bruce and Kevin’s in-laws and Bruce’s ex, Mark, and Mark’s current partner, and I suppose we’ll get used to it. The country has come to accept stereotypical gay men—sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in over-decorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small weird dog and who worship campy performers and go in for flamboyance now and then themselves. If they want to be accepted as couples and daddies, however, the flamboyance may have to be brought under control. Parents are supposed to stand in back and not wear chartreuse pants and black polka-dot shirts. That’s for the kids. It’s their show."

Now, as slurs go, this one appears to me to be pretty tame. I actually think it's pretty funny, and if that offends you, or strikes you as a lame stereotype, well, get over it. Whether on the basis of sexual orientation, religious belief, national origin, hair color, or whatever, you do not have a Right to Not be Offended.

We have gone far overboard in our reaction to what are perceived as negative comments about aspects of our origins, religion, or personality. Muslims, gays, Jews, left-handed-cross-dressing-Montenegran dwarfs, everyone nowadays is spring-loaded to take offense at the least hint of even mild criticism or satire. Ethnic jokes, once a staple of the entertainment industry, are a no-no...unless, of course, they are made by the right people. The howls of outrage from the black community about any comment that could be remotely considered "racist" are immediate and overwhelming...but outrageously racist jokes about whites and Asians are a staple of black radio programming. Any criticism of Muslims immediately unleashes the wrath of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a charge of "Islamophobia"...but the most foul slanders directed by Muslims against Christians and Jews appear to be perfectly all right. Criticism of homosexuals for any reason will result in your being charged with "homophobia."

We live in the time of the thin skin. We are no longer allowed to poke fun at each other's foibles. A joke that once might have been funny may now result in a lawsuit. We seem to have an implied Right to Not Be Offended.

This is stupid.

When I was young, I went through the standard childhood agonies of being picked on for being smaller, less athletic, and more bookish than most other children. I got used to being called all sorts of names. And my mother in her wisdom pointed out that such treatment said more about the character of the name-caller than it did any damage to me. In so many words, she was telling me that I had no Right to Not Be Offended.

And neither do you.

The world is full of people who are mean-spirited and shallow and will result to insult in the absence of the intelligence to do anything else. It' s also full of people who are intelligent and witty and use humor and satirical comment to poke fun at others. If you're willing to dish it out, you need to be willing to take it. The automatic reaction of "that's racist," "that's Islamophobic," that's "homophobic," "that's anti-Semitic," or whatever is foolish. Any intelligent person can tell the difference between a good joke to be laughed at and a base slander to be considered objectionable.

The problem appears to be that we suffer from a shortage of intelligent persons.

Have a good day. Enjoy a joke at your expense. If you can't laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at others. You have no Right to Not Be Offended.

Enjoy the coming weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


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