Sax Appeal 2010: on causing offense

Following the controversy caused by last year’s edition of Sax Appeal (see here and here, if you don’t know about this), the editor asked if I’d be willing to contribute a column. I was, and here it is, for those of you not in Cape Town (or those who simply ignored the pleas of those desperate students at the traffic lights).*

As of January 1 2010, blasphemy is a crime in Ireland, with offenders liable for a €25000 fine. Later in January, Kurt Westergaard – one of those responsible for the infamous “Danish cartoons” – was attacked in his home by a knife-wielding fanatic. Closer to home, some readers of Sax Appeal may still harbour memories of the outrage provoked by the “blasphemous” content of Sax Appeal 2009, and some others (well, the same ones, probably) may currently be choking on their morning tea while trying to process the harms they believe themselves to be enduring as a result of the edition you are currently reading.

Well, good. If they splutter and cough for long enough, the next episode of Egoli or some such may just come along and distract them, and thereby save the rest of us from having to tolerate the harms and headaches of having to process the incoherent claims the faithful like to make, where omnipotent deities are suddenly – mysteriously – under threat as a result of some attempt at humour, no matter how feeble or sophisticated that humour might be.

In wars premised on ideology and dogma, our sense of perspective is often the first casualty. While nobody likes to be offended, having to endure a certain amount of offense is one of the prices we pay for living in a free society – and the same liberties that allow columnists to lampoon a belief that you hold dear are those that allow you to express those same beliefs freely. And given the tolerance awarded to metaphysics in our society, it might be true to say that for every homoeopathist, faith-healer, or quack of another sort, only half a joke is made at their expense – although I expect that this ratio overestimates the number of jokes we allow ourselves in these areas.

While it’s deeply offensive to me that some universities (not ours, thankfully) offer courses in things like homeopathy, or fail to censure staff who contribute to the spread of Bronze Age mythology in lecture halls, I don’t believe that I have any sort of rights or entitlement in terms of making them stop. As David Mitchell recently pointed out (borrowing from J.S. Mill):
“Let the idiots and bullies speak openly and they will be revealed for what they are!” is the idea. It’s a brilliant one and, in confident, educated societies, it almost always works – certainly much more often than any of the alternatives.

It’s true that some of the material published in Sax Appeal 2009 was offensive – given UCT’s professed standards, I would have hoped for the jokes to be cleverer. The concerns were however not about how funny the jokes were, but rather revolved around the idea that the jokes were taboo, in that they attacked some sacred cow or another. But our sense of what is – or should be – taboo cannot be trusted, as the arrogance implied by the position that your beliefs are beyond question eliminates the possibility of personal and social advancement.

When we find ourselves offended by something, we have three basic options. The first – and the one that seemed most prevalent following last year’s Sax Appeal – is to make the claim that the harms you feel are somehow privileged, and that others should respect your beliefs. But this response, if taken seriously, affords extra protection to those who complain the most or threaten the most violence. If the arguments for your position are sound, a more appropriate response might be to simply explain to the rest of us where we are going wrong – you can’t do yourself any favours in terms of persuading us by throwing your toys about.

Second, you can chose to ignore the offense, and simply hope that it goes away. It usually doesn’t, which brings me to the third response, which consists of realising that while people might sometimes be rude or offensive, this is an entirely separate issue from the quality of the ideas they express. Just as I have the option of responding to claims that offend, or simply strike me as bizarre, those offended by mockery of the things they hold dear have the same option.

Exercising this option has two clear advantages. It allows for the possibility of changing your own mind, in that the mockery might provoke debate and discussion about the motivations for causing the offense. It also challenges you to question the motivations for holding the very beliefs that have been mocked. Not allowing for these possibilities amounts to immunising yourself from correction, and that seems (to borrow a phrase from Christopher Hitchens) like “cultural and moral suicide”. It also seems like something that should have no place at UCT, or in the minds of the team who put together this year’s Sax Appeal.

* Having now bought the magazine, my piece isn’t in there – and neither is there much that could be considered offensive to anybody in the 2010 edition. It appears that the censors took their jobs quite seriously this year…

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.