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Jul 12 2011

On being offended

I often comment that religious people don’t have the right to never be offended when someone questions their beliefs. Their ideas – theistic, supernatural, cultural, or otherwise – are still ideas. This is because I strongly support the concept of a marketplace of ideas – that “the truth or the best policy arises out of the competition of widely various ideas in free, transparent public discourse.” A religious idea must defend it’s worth just as a political idea would, and offense is sometimes an unavoidable side effect of this discussion.
After the many, many feminism or diversity related internet kerfuffles, I usually get at least a couple comments along the lines of “Why is it okay to offend religious people but not women/blacks/homosexuals?! Hypocrite!”

Let me try my best to explain.

Like I said, religion is an idea. Gender, race, and sexual orientation are not. They are (for the most part) immutable biological traits that a person has very little choice in. There are certainly bad ideas out there, whether they’re wrong for factual, logical or ethical reasons. I have no obligation to completely avoid offending you when all I’m saying is “I disagree.” But there is no inherent “wrongness” or inferiority in being a woman, or a racial minority, or gay. To suggest such a thing while lacking any logic or rationale is exactly what causes sexism, racism, and homophobia.

It’s one thing to demand intellectual honesty of intangible ideas. Blasphemy is a victimless crime, after all. Offense aimed at intrinsic human properties is hardly victimless.

Temporarily ignoring concepts of privilege or -isms, a lot of these kerfuffles boil down to people lacking common human decency. While I don’t think religious people have the right to avoid all offense, I do think we should try to minimize the amount of offense we cause. Now, that’s not the same as saying “Don’t be a dick” ala Phil Plait. I think dickishness definitely has it’s place and can be an effective way of getting a message across in certain situations. But we have to ask ourselves “Can I accomplish the same goal while being a little less of an asshole?”

If accomplishing your goal requires offense, unapologetically go right ahead. Otherwise unpopular ideas would be silenced into oblivion. Because really, you’re always going to offend someone. Atheists can’t even say we exist or that we’re good people without pissing people off!

But when you’re needlessly enraging people with no goal in mind, that’s not equivalent to being edgy or snarky or a firebrand. That’s being a fucking asshole. Or if you’re doing it because it gets your rocks off – a troll. And if someone points out you hurt them, it’s a little troglodytish to insist that you didn’t or that you don’t care. I think a lot of this can be explained by the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, but it’s still disappointing.

I could go on about this all day – but I’ve given a whole talk on the topic, so watch it if you want more details and examples about minimizing offense.

Practically speaking as someone within the atheist community, it’s even more important that we try to tone down offense when it comes to minority groups. Diversity matters. It’s not just unrealistic to tell minority groups to suck it up and be stronger – it lacks compassion. We’re not saying they’re inferior or need coddling, but that if you put up with this shit constantly, why would you voluntarily join a group that adds to your frustrations? It’s precisely the reason why one of my rules of comment moderation is that I’ll ban people who use hateful speech. I could tell other commentors to suck it up, or I could make a safe environment where people feel comfortable contributing.

Even if I think you should do it out of the goodness of your heart, Greta Christina often suggests a purely Machiavellian reason for such a tactic. That making more people feel welcome in this movement will only help us grow even larger and more powerful. So if we want to succeed in our goals of promoting rationalism and humanism, we first need to make sure we can get as many allies as possible.

We simply can’t afford to make the same mistakes of every other progressive movement before us.

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