‘Thou shall not offend’ is not enough
I read with great interest The Interim’s report of a Grade 11 student who was given an “unofficial suspension” for wearing a pro-life shirt that read, “Abortion is Mean” (January 2002). The principal at Central Elgin Collegiate in St. Thomas, Ont. saw fit to send Lisa Klassen home because, as he put it, some people found her message “offensive.” One might argue that it was the principal’s action that was mean, whereas Miss Klassen’s message was meaningful.
Personally, I am inclined to think that the unborn would find abortion offensive. Miss Klassen’s message is actually instructive. But it has become fashionable these days to attack the messenger and ignore the message. Somehow it is not considered “offensive” to the messenger to suspend her from school, deny her certain civil liberties, and hold her up to public ridicule for making a moral point. Such is the double standard that must be applied when the principle of “Thou Shall Not Offend” is put into practise. What is presumed to be truly offensive is to suggest that abortion is an offence, that a society that disregards it is an embarrassment, and that persecuting anyone who objects to abortion is a disgrace.
Medical tradition has long held that “do no harm” is a good first principle. Today this more sober precept has been replaced by, “it is OK to do harm, but never bring such harm to light because it might offend someone.” This change in attitude is really a shift from morality to psychology. We are not supposed to concern ourselves with the nature or consequences of immorality. We must restrict our concerns to not making anyone feel uneasy or uncomfortable. The world can go to rack and ruin, as long as no one is offended in the process. Ignorance is bliss, feelings are paramount, and reality is irrelevant. Somnolence replaces Socrates, Prozac replaces Plato, and attitude replaces Aristotle. Philosophy is out; sophistry is in.
What is taken for progress today was once regarded as a pathology. Samuel Johnson described the “modest man” as one who attempts to “please principally by not offending.” The term “modest,” of course, is a rather hilarious overstatement. Such a man is, in truth, more pathetic than “modest.” He is nothing more than fashionable timidity. In trying to exercise his dubious strategy, he ends up pleasing no one and possibly offending everyone.
In Miss Klassen’s case, we might say that her message offended some people, who then offended the principal, who then offended both the 16-year-old primary offender and her parents, who in turn, offended the school, and on and on. A firestorm of offensiveness will continue to spread, and rather swiftly, until someone returns the focus to what is essential; namely, the underlying moral problem. People make fools of themselves when they elevate “Thou Shall Not Offend” to the level of a cardinal virtue because, in ignoring the moral issue in question, all they can do is to continue to offend each other. The fire continues to rage because everyone is blaming everyone else for the inconvenience it has caused.
Justice, truth, freedom of speech, and moral rectitude are not only loftier ideals than refraining from offending anyone, but they are infinitely more practical. People are offended for contradictory reasons. Abortion offends some, while opposing it offends others. One cannot please everyone. Being offended, however, is a response that may be justifiable or not justifiable. In either case, justice is the higher and more intelligible ideal. It is the measure that determines whether one is truly entitled to be morally offended or not. Samuel Johnson, whom we have already cited, remarked that some people, no longer getting any milk from the cow, have gone off to milk the bull. We cannot put justice aside and expect to live in a just society when we restrict our concerns merely to people’s feelings.
It is possible to love everyone. This does not involve any contradiction. Love is a positive response to the dignity that resides in each person. But there are times when, in loving some people (the unborn, let’s say), we offend others. This does not mean that we should abandon love and raise not offending others to a position of primacy. Rather, it means that we should be faithful to the primacy of love and help others to realize that love and justice are more important than reactive feelings. It means that we should never subordinate love and justice to feelings, and never betray them for reasons of political correctness. My humble congratulations go out to Miss Klassen for her courage and her integrity. May her tribe increase.Dr. Donald DeMarco, a frequent contributor to The Interim, is a professor of philosophy at the St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, Ont.