The Dangers of Never Being Offended

By April 27, 2005

In his recent article Movie-sanitizing technology: clean flicks or dirty
tricks?
,” Paul
K. McMasters
, of the First
Amendment Center
in Virginia, examines the implications of “new technology
and video equipment” that allows “sanitizers to delete words and images, skip
whole scenes, change a speaker’s dialogue, switch background or scenery, put
clothes on characters and insert promotions for products. It is even possible
to erase a movie’s whole soundtrack and substitute a different one.” While no
one denies the right of viewers to decide what they view, this technology
brings up some interesting issues concerning the value of having our views and
beliefs challenged. Paul (who we are very proud to have on the Board of Editors
of our Guides Project) writes:

As the tools for tailoring all communication to our
individual comfort zones become more sophisticated and available, we will have
the power to convert everything that comes our way to just another version of what
we already know and believe. That would be most unwise.

In the end, no amount of technology can take the place of
the exquisitely fine filter that is the human mind. We have the ability to
delete, deconstruct and even destroy any communication that comes our way, or
to turn it to our own elevation. True, from time to time, we will encounter
language or ideas that offend, but we should be wary of contracting out our
right and duty to choose for ourselves which communications we receive, from Hollywood or anyone else,
and how we evaluate what we do receive.

The First Amendment considerations for both the movie-makers
and the sanitizers aside, it is our own rights we must not only guard but
exercise. That includes asking how far we carry this idea of insulating
ourselves or our families from offense.

Paul concludes brilliantly:
 
If we watch only the news that confirms our prejudices, if
we read only what doesn’t challenge us, if we receive only communication that
doesn’t offend us, if we tolerate only ideas that don’t provoke us, eventually
there will come a point when intellectual stultification sets in and what’s
left of an increasingly fractured society’s common language disappears.
 

Paul is pointing out a fundamental truth that too many
people who claim to support free speech seem squeamish about recognizing these
days: far from being a regrettable side effect of free speech, being offended
is actually a necessary part of open exchange of ideas. Colleges and
universities seem especially uncomfortable with the “value of offending people”
(or at least they are when the offensive speech does not reflect their own
biases or points of view). As I have often quipped, “Being offended is what
happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged and testing your beliefs
in debate and discussion is central to the process of education. Therefore, if
you leave college without ever having been offended, you should demand your
money back.”