Thursday, December 19, 2013

Season's greetings and free speech

Being hurt and being offended are far from equivalent. In a democracy, individuals should expect to be offended; experiencing offensive behavior by others is one cost of freedom. I find Christian fundamentalism silly, inane, and theologically reprehensible. When other people, especially those who know me, stereotype all Christians – including me – as fundamentalists, I often find that I feel offended. I am saddened that they think me silly, inane, perhaps even reprehensible.

However, my offense is insufficient to warrant any effort to limit their freedom to form and to express opinion.

Hurt, which for this post, I define as sufficient injury to warrant limiting another person's freedom requires crossing a significantly higher threshold than merely offending. Hurt must harm more than feelings. Otherwise, civility would result in a society in which nobody dared to express a contrary opinion; any dissent would almost certainly offend someone's feelings and therefore be morally wrong. (For a more extensive analysis of this subject, cf. Peter Berger, "Two Modest Victories for Common Sense," The American Interest, December 11, 2013)

For example, the Christmas season begins on December 25 (at least among those Christians who observe Advent). Exchanging Christmas greetings with other Christians is appropriate. Expressing other forms of greetings with non-Christians is more appropriate, e.g., Happy Hanukkah to Jews in years in which Hanukkah occurs near Christmas, Season's Greetings, or Happy Holidays. I try to greet others as I would have them greet me, i.e., in a way that respects that individual's beliefs and heritage; the greeting is not an opportunity for me to push my belief. I have had the delightful experience of wishing a rabbi Happy Hanukkah as he was wishing me Merry Christmas, causing us both to laugh.

I am offended when people, particularly Christians, take umbrage at people refusing to exchange Christmas greetings. In fact, that expectation suggests that Christmas has become a secular rather than religious holiday in our highly secularized culture. On those occasions, I recognize the sin of Christian hubris.

Conversely, when people claim that the mere presence of Christian symbols – especially when displayed on non-public land – is wrong because it harms non-Christians, I laugh at the absurdity of their argument. Diversity enriches, never impoverishes. Democracy that requires uniformity and homogeneity has lost its genuineness, which comes only when people are free.

A similar analysis applies to other words and speech acts, e.g., flag burning, cross burning, and name-calling. Adults living in democratic societies should remember that offensive speech acts prove that freedom is alive and well. Citizens of such societies do well to cultivate moral courage and strength in children such that by the time the child becomes an adult, the child shrugs off offensive speech acts as the products of the small-minded and morally misshapen.

Children obviously need to learn (and it may be painful) to cope with offensive speech acts, first from other children, and then, as the child develops moral courage and strength, from adults. Adults should be especially careful in speaking to children; speech acts that may cause offense but not harm when spoken to another adult may harm the child.

Merry Christmas to Christian readers and Season's Greetings to everyone else!

1 comment:

Ted said...

This sounds like a good sermon to help others understand hate, hurt, and freedom.