We enjoy the freedom of speech in the United States, but like any other right, this one comes with responsibilities. While we are free to speak as we will, there is an accompanying responsibility to say what is true. We have libel, slander, and perjury laws to protect our freedom of speech from those who would destroy it with lies.
We also have a general responsibility as Americans not to offend others because society runs better when people do not go out of their way to stir up hatred and anger. While your neighbor may be both obese and homely, common courtesy dictates that this is no reason to call him a “fat, ugly slob” to his face or behind his back. There is enough strife in the world already without manufacturing more in your backyard.
So there are two competing ideas — we have the freedom of speech and can say whatever we want on the one hand, and we have the need to be courteous to those around us on the other hand. Some people have taken the second part to mean that we have a fundamental right not to be offended. But there is no way to say or do anything without potentially offending someone. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel offended without your consent.”
Recently my wife went to Chinatown in New York, and she picked up some paper money used in Chinese funerals. Paper objects are commonly burned at Chinese funerals, with the idea that the paper item being burned is carried to the dead as a real object to be enjoyed in the hereafter. So TPK picked up a bundle of fake bills marked at $1,000,000 each — a handsome sum for the departed. She explained the use of this money to her sister, a grade school teacher, and her sister thought some of the bills might be fun to use with her fifth grade students during Chinese New Year. My wife then pointed out some tiny print on the fake money which identified them as “Hell Notes,” the traditional name for this fake currency. While most people probably would not notice or care, it would only take a single offended parent to complain and ruin the students’ fun — not to mention endangering my sister-in-law’s job. Fear of possibly causing offense stopped her from sharing a teaching moment with her students.
Our society is becoming more concerned with not offending people, but also concerned with the way a tiny but vocal minority can change how everyone does things. All it takes is a single offended person to cause a traditional and beloved nativity scene to be pulled from the public square. People are reacting to these Offended-Americans by self-censoring what they say, for fear that someone will blow up and be offended over an innocent comment.
Akwana Walker is one of these Offended-Americans who made the news. She was horribly offended when her child’s teacher wrote “niggardly” on the board and explained that this word meant “stingy.” The fact that this word has absolutely nothing to do with race didn’t matter to Walker, who is African-American. She was offended, not because the teacher was racist nor because the word was offensive, but simply because it sounded like something Walker didn’t like, and that was enough for the teacher to receive a reprimand.
This reminds me of something Jesus told his disciples about the end times: “And then shall many be offended…” (Matt. 24:10) My wife had pointed the scripture out to me several years ago, and while I had never looked at that verse in this light, it certainly appears to apply to people today. Why, just quoting the Bible is guaranteed to offend at least one person who reads this article.
It seems silly to me to go ballistic over a word like “niggardly” when the offense is all in the offended person’s head. Words actually mean things. We don’t need to invent new meanings based on the way they sound. When Eason Jordan claimed that the U.S. military was specifically targeting members of the media, his words meant something. And the people who were present recognized exactly what he meant. This is a good example of having the freedom to say what you want, but needing to recognize that you may be called to account for your words.
A lady who made a bomb threat (I’m guessing as a joke, or possibly because she was frustrated by travel delays) was held for questioning in Phoenix while her luggage made it on the flight to San Diego. There the luggage faced the consequence of her words — it was taken out by the San Diego bomb squad and exploded. Next time you feel like mouthing off to the efficient and courteous airline people, remember the fate of this lady’s luggage because of what she said.
Recently Newsweek published an article claiming that a Koran supplied to terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay had been flushed down the toilet by a soldier. Because Newsweek chose to publish this unsupported accusation, riots broke out in Muslim nations, and several people died. To get to the bottom of this, the Pentagon launched an investigation over the flushing of a Koran and other allegations of Koranic abuse. It found that some soldiers had actually mistreated the Koran by *gasp* holding it with only one hand. Investigation did find some intentional and unintentional mishandling of the Koran, but 75% of these mishandlings came from the detainees themselves.
Newsweek has since retracted the story, but even if they were to trumpet this information and apologize into every Muslim’s ear, it would not bring back to life those who died in the riots. To twist a common Leftist slogan, “Newsweek lied, and people died.” Words mean something, and these words led to deaths.
We are free to say whatever we want, but there is a responsibility associated with that right — the responsibility to say what is true. Eason Jordan found that out. Dan Rather found that out. And now Newsweek has found that out.