Monday, February 27, 2006

The Right to Offend

Kate has stirred up a lot of discussion with a post about comments from Australia and from the Vatican regarding the conflict between Muslim religious values and Western values of freedom. She criticized Cardinal Angelo Sodano's comment:
"If we tell our people they have no right to offend, we have to tell the others they have no right to destroy us."
Many seemed surprised that she would criticize this remark. In the comments, Kate clarified her point:
In a liberal democracy, no one has the authority to tell others "they do not have a right to offend".
Aside, I ask (because I don't know): Is the Vatican a liberal democracy?

As to the statement itself, I would argue that we routinely grant authority to our courts to limit the "right to offend." You might ask, "What right to offend? Is there any such right?" and I would answer that freedom of expression could be interpreted as a right to offend. However, there are obvious limitations on freedom of expression, such as parts of the Criminal Code dealing with public indecency (this part specifically mentions the intent "to offend") and with incitement or promotion of hatred.

These limitations are controversial, and rightly so. There is not, and cannot be, a natural place to draw the line limiting the freedom. From our Constitution:
1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
The enduring question is: what are "reasonable limits"? This is why we have an elected Parliament to create and review the laws that prescribe the limits. This is why we have debates in Parliament, in the press, in our communities, and in our homes, about where the limits should be.

It would be convenient to have a tidy statement of the proper relationship between authority and rights, but I don't believe it can ever be effective. I have this image of a child (like one of those who used to call me "Stewpot") telling his teacher, "This is a liberal democracy! I have a right to offend! You have no authority!" Actually, the reality was pretty close to that, simply because the teacher had no idea what was going on.

It's an interesting train of thought. My schoolmates had a right to offend me by taunting, or putting salt in my milk, or knocking me down and kicking snow in my face. I had a right to offend them by fighting back, or by taking it up with the teacher. Could anyone limit my schoolmates' "right to offend" without also limiting mine?

Where is the reasonable limit?

1 comment:

Madcap said...

Hi Laura - I'm having trouble putting a sentence together properly these days, but I've been reading your posts. And no, the Vatican is not a liberal democracy. The idea is pretty hilarious to a sidelines Catholic keeping an eye on recent developments. If anything, the present regime is reactively conservative, and views itself as a benevolent dictatorship ordained by God.

I was talking to an Egyptian friend a couple nights ago about "offending" people. She lives in Toronto. She's no apologist for Egyptian culture, and is nothing but glad to be living in Canada rather than Egypt, but even she finds that she has to choose her words carefully when she has something negative to say about the "old country". The prevailing attitude there in T.O. is that no one must feel "uncomfortable" because of your words.

What she said to me was, "If it was so wonderful in Egypt, so much better than Canada, then why the hell did they come here in the first place? And why are they staying? There's a plane everyday." But that's offensive, apparently. She gets pretty fed up with her mother, who's one of those, gleefully collecting her pension check and getting her subsidized medications, and on the other hand telling everyone that this country destroyed her life and destroyed her family.