Our right to be offensive is increasingly being seen as this pesky, little symptom of the First Amendment that must be either begrudgingly entertained or reluctantly accepted. People will casually write off being offensive as uncouth or unbecoming of a civilized society; they are, however, mistaken. The ones who are annoyed by our right to be offensive are the same ones who are likely to be ignorant of the fact that we are where we are today as result of individuals offending the orthodoxies of their day. They are also likely unaware of the consequences that limiting offensiveness can have.
One might ask themselves whether it’s worth being offensive in today’s era of wokeism, microaggressions, and cancel culture. The answer should be (and always will be) a resounding and resolute yes. Below are three reasons why we must embrace, and continue, our tradition of being offensive.
First, we owe it to all of those who came before us and who sacrificed so much in the name of giving offense. We owe it to those who were mocked and ridiculed, booed and hissed at, beaten or imprisoned, exiled and ostracized, and hanged or burned at the stake all for simply offending the doctrines and dogmas of their day. Literal blood, sweat, and tears were given by countless generations so we could be where we are today.
Secondly, giving offense has been the main driver of change over (at least) the last millennium. As pointed out above, our society has gotten to the point it is at today because individuals thumbed their noses at the norms and orthodoxies of their day. Examples abound:
- Copernicus offended Christendom when he said that the earth was not at the center of the universe, which eventually gave way to Galileo and his subsequent discoveries
- Suffragettes offended the male-dominated society of the 19th and 20th centuries when they published literature and held demonstrations demanding the vote to right, and ultimately this led to women’s enfranchisement
- Rosa Parks offended a whole segment of society when she refused to give up her seat in the front of the bus. By doing so she sparked a conversation about the inequality of the doctrine “separate but equal,” and a reversal of numerous Jim Crow-era policies ensued
- The first openly gay magazine in United States, ONE, offended norms and orthodoxies of the 1950s. But by doing so, and in its subsequent struggles with the authorities, ONE helped give change to obscenity laws and increased First Amendment right for the LGBT community in its landmark Supreme Court case One, Inc. v. Olesen
One can only imagine where we would be today had these courageous individuals not dared to be offensive.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is imperative that we continue our long tradition of offending contemporary orthodoxies because the only other alternative is clamping down or dismissing speech and expressions that are deemed offensive. The notion that any idea that is legitimately expressed can be silenced or banned on the grounds that it is merely “offensive” is censorship, and as one of our greatest founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, put it, “Censorship is the handmaiden to tyranny.” So, if you are against tyranny, you have to be for offensiveness.
As was stated at the start, the right to be offensive, which has been affirmed to us as citizens by various Supreme Court cases (RAV v. St. Paul, Texas v. Johnson, Snyder v. Phelps) is increasingly being portrayed as a thorn in the side of modern society; as if the only thing stopping us from achieving an idyllic society is our individual right to give offense. It is time that that misconception comes to an end and we start to view this inalienable right for what it really is: the heart and soul of the First Amendment.