The freedom to offend is the freedom to criticize, the freedom to ridicule, and the freedom to treat irrational choices with humor—not because a person could not possibly deserve to be offended but because everyone deserves better. Criticism and humor are among the most preferred alternatives to brute physical force for inducing change from a dour culture and suppressive politics to something more interesting and humane. The rebuking of this freedom with knee-jerk moral correctness about someone’s right not to be offended is a side effect of fear, which can halt the most noble ambition an evolving human can seek: the will to be free.
In this article, I will attempt to make sense of what it means to be free and how such freedom necessarily entails that someone somewhere is going to be offended. My inspiration comes from the similarity in social behavior between the cultural environment in Tunisia, where I grew up and lived until the revolution, and the social and political landscape in Europe and North America in the past few years. The comparison I make is from a personal rather than scholarly viewpoint. I am simply someone who lived in a dictatorial, group-driven regime and took part in the revolution that brought it down.
Either way, how individuals form opinions and engage in public action is contingent on how masses of people “feel” about it, as opposed to individually powered, rationally resolved decision-making processes. Reactions to issues involving gender and sexuality, political and economic inequalities, immigration, and climate change are guided less by rational examination and discussion than by group feelings. The premise is that this proclivity is guaranteed to spread oppression and power abuse.
In Tunisia and its neighboring regions, unchecked impulses arising from feelings are generally not confined to the private sphere, where they should almost always be. They are the prime motivation for public behavior most of the time; the individual self automatically dissolves due to a vague but fundamental notion that “‘People’ is us, ‘people’ is me; what they feel and have long felt about this and that is what determines what to do about it.” A highly emotional, suppressive attitude toward the individual permeates discussions of important topics, such as fair and equal treatment among members of the same society, with minor differences from one country to another in the region. Emotions of fear, anger, self-loathing, and guilt are instilled in boys and girls from the time of early childhood by all sorts of pro-group power structures—including family, schools, and the community.
We should understand that before the 2011 revolution, Tunisians’ view of “authority” was tied to the oppressive character of political institutions and the correlative suppressiveness in community relationships. Authority was by definition authoritarianism. The reality of life was that one continually experienced a stream of anxieties, a feeling that there’s something outside your body constantly judging your movements and words—something with an unquestionable authority. Notions of right and wrong were essentially shaped by fear of such authority. It was as if there were no other options. Around the age of twelve or fourteen, one starts to develop some sense of political sensibility and desires to express his or her mind to friends and relatives accordingly. This could involve simple matters, such as describing how the president, government officials, or religious figures have behaved, or statements such as “Why are you constantly telling me what to do?!,” “I don’t agree with your methods,” or “That’s not an argument; that’s bullying.” More often than not, group pressure is so high it stifles this desire, and so the opportunity for clear, fair, and healthy engagement in public easily fades to dark.
Three main types of people emerge: the loyalist, the disinterested, and the different. The loyalist typically identifies with “us” as opposed to “them.” To the disinterested, putting food on the table or the outcome of a football game or a romantic soap opera is the scope of their concern. The different person’s attitude of “I don’t like any of this” is a vexation to the community—to the self-appointed guardians of religion and the politicians on top.
A recent example of emotive group behavior in Tunisia was the reaction to a proposition by former President Beji Caid Sebsi to advance gender equality. He aimed to change a law that was based on a Qur’anic dictum and determined that female children could have only half of what their male siblings inherited from their parents. Sebsi had already revoked another Islamic-based law that prevented women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the men converted to Islam. The majority of the public was against both initiatives. The measures were also opposed by institutions claiming to speak for Muslim societies, such as Al-Azhar University and Mosque in Egypt, which issued a press release that said: “As the guardian of god’s religion” whose “duty supersedes all geographical borders, we strictly refuse any attempt by politicians to intervene in the creed of the Muslims.” This position, or reflex, rests on an incapability on the part of many men—and women—to emotionally handle less male authoritarianism in society.
In Egypt and the Persian Gulf states, polygamy is legal. In Iraq, Syria, and Morocco, a husband can ask his wife to sign a paper approving more marriages. In Egypt, the husband can initiate and conclude all divorce procedures without the wife knowing. The assumption is that a woman doesn’t have the basic natural ability to question such arrangements. And it points not only to the nature of relationships between men and women but specifically between “purely masculine men” and the rest of society. Religiously conservative literature, which supports these practices, is not an evil in itself, but it does provide powerful support for the impulse to prevent girls (or the not-so-macho boys) from developing a sense of determination. In day-to-day life, be it in the household, in the local cafe, or on television, the two most referenced quotations on this subject are: “Allah commands you regarding your children. For the male a share equivalent to that of two females” (Qur’an 4:11). The second is a saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad: “Women are lacking in reason and religious commitment.” Many so-called moderate religious scholars argue that both references are misunderstood or used out of context. “Islam actually dignifies women,” they say. But in reality, those words are what many people use to form and project public opinion and preserve the cultural outlook.
Another example occurs during Ramadan. One can’t even eat a piece of bread in public without hurting the feelings of a passerby who considers the act of fasting part of his identity. Feeling offended in this case usually involves a display of aggressive bravado. The reaction is comically disproportionate to the action.
The last resort for moral legitimacy on matters of this sort is a collectively accepted feeling about the divine as it manifests itself in the three main organs of religion: the Qur’an (i.e., the literal morals of an ultimate, invisible being); the Sunnah (the presumably recorded behavior and beliefs of the prophet); and the personal analysis of religious scholars. Taught from an early age, prolifically diffused through social media and television, and, perhaps more interestingly, recited loudly and clearly through the speakers of minarets on a daily basis, together these constitute an impeccably indoctrinating, feeling-stirring presence.
Recently during Ramadan, I was in a restaurant in Tunisia with my ex-girlfriend and her mother. They are both German nationals. We ordered lunch, but the waiters declined to take my order. “We do not serve you; we only serve them,” they said in an antagonistic tone. This happened twice in the same afternoon. The message was, of course, “You do not fast like the rest of us. Stay hungry, shamed, and unwelcome.” They felt offended and entitled to carry out “the duty” of forcing allegiance to the group. What then crossed my mind (which coincided with a time of political strife and elite reshuffling in the country) was whether there was any legislation regulating this behavior in public. If so, how clear is it? In principle, we must expect state institutions and the law to discourage people from invasively displaying their most personal feelings in public. Aside from the attitude and mindset of its personnel—which differs from that of the waiters I described only in that they are armed—the Ministry of the Interior circulated a decree prohibiting most restaurants, cafes, and bars from opening during the month of Ramadan on the pretext of being offensive to those who fast. I wonder how much of the decree results from the self-serving sentiments of the state officials behind it and how much of it originates in a very democratic need to reflect an informed so-called public opinion. There is no reliable source to demonstrate the latter, so I am going with the former.
The above examples demonstrate how unchecked impulses prompted by feelings work their way through public life under the cover of religiosity. They are no longer about collective morality or about who is right or wrong but about how actual interactions in shared spaces are dependent on how someone is emotionally disposed in the moment. When it comes to practical decisions on the quality of shared spaces, it is easier for people to surrender to the comfort of impulses than to question them.
Are politics in Europe and North America as suppressive or irrational or involve as much emotion?
Whether they occur online or on the street, conversations across the Western hemisphere have been influenced by strong feelings of affiliation to “our group.” Group identity has become the main source of self-perception, a fixed representation that happens to form simultaneously along continuous exposure to tiny bits and pieces of political information here and there. People demarcate their territories according to group loyalties and look to recruit new members daily. Right-wingers, left-wingers, machists, feminists, nationalists, homosexuals and their allies, homophobes, Muslims, Islamophobes, anti-Semites, white supremacists, supporters of Black Lives Matter, those who counter all lives matter, and those in the Me Too movement—all may engage in confrontations centered around their identities. Beliefs and codes of behavior are considered correct and sound, not because they were thought through or backed by reliable evidence but by dint of sheer membership in a group.
Another case that I find interesting concerns people who in the past few years fled to Europe from war-torn zones and those seen as their hosts—and who behave as such. Where does the tension between the two come from? On one account, it rises from differences in simple everyday “mannerism and etiquettes.” Differences in the ways little things are done can lead to feelings of estrangement on both sides. Additionally, many newcomers surely have preconceptions about the host society and its role in the economic exploitation of their native country. Colonialism and violent occupation are recent history. Unless addressed and rectified, these notions will be carried down from one generation to the next, hindering integration.
Let’s assume now that this integration involves two main feelings: appreciation and regret. When a newcomer’s behavior signals lack of appreciation for the host society’s existing norms or when it signals lack of regret for entirely dissociating with such norms, this has to do with the sort of group relation such an individual was used to. If the model of relation is similar to what I described earlier, exposure to less oppressive models of interaction accounts for the following: The individual is unable or unwilling to show either a sense of appreciation or regret, as an attempt to test his or her inner capability to assume individual power. Instinctively, the individual wants to break from the group’s oppressiveness, but he or she is constantly pressured not to do so. The more the value of the individual in such a climate is highlighted, the more the conscious side of the mind is pressured to feel guilty about this particular form of liberation. So it hangs back from developing things such as self-sufficiency, proactiveness, a clear sense of place in the world, and a rational plan for sharing public spaces. The subconscious (i.e., involuntary impulses and instinct) responds to such external events by succumbing to and taking pride in the norms of its formative culture.
However, even if one is conditioned into submitting to group structures, one still has the obligation to step away and assume the responsibility of being mindful about others—individuals and groups. Among other things, mindfulness about others entails understanding the importance of offense. Offense is about rightfully scaling groups’ limits for possessing power; it’s about confronting the accumulation of power in the hands of one particular group of people. If someone’s self-worth is strictly dependent on identifying with that group, then of course he or she is likely going to feel offended. Such feelings do nothing to change the fact that too much group power is by definition an oppressive power.
Throughout history, we have witnessed the tendency of the collective to silence those who challenge mainstream reality. They have been subjected to accusations of treason, physical assault, imprisonment, confinement in psychiatric institutions, or kindly dismissed with condescending innuendos of being “odd” or “cute.” Any people who pose a threat to the established powers of the sociopolitical order—the unusual—are often confused with the archenemy.
The freedom to offend is the freedom to criticize, the freedom to ridicule, and the freedom to treat irrational choices with humor—not because a person could not possibly deserve to be offended but because everyone deserves better. Criticism and humor are among the most preferred alternatives to brute physical force for inducing change from a …