The radical culture of offense

I have complained often that America has become a culture of offense, where anything that might offend anyone now must not be said, as if we have grown afraid of speech, debate, disagreement, and different viewpoints. I find that attitude itself unAmerican, offensive.

Of course, the American culture has nothing on others when it comes to viewing offense as a forbidden crime, witness the violent uproar over cartoons depicting Mohammed and daring to criticize or question. Some Muslims are boycotting products from the countries where the cartoons have been published and rioting and burning European embassies; others in the community are questioning this behavior. And more publications across Europe and even now in New Zealand are running the cartoons, often in solidarity with the Danish publishers, to their own peril.

In America, the Bush Administration says it, too, finds the cartoons offensive:

The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, reading the government’s statement on the controversy, said, “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images,” which are routinely published in the Arab press, “as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.”

Still, the United States defended the right of the Danish and French newspapers to publish the cartoons. “We vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view,” Mr. McCormack added.

Well, I’d hope so.

And U.S. news organizations are generally not showing the cartoons, arguing, as The Times summarizes the stance: “Representatives said the story could be told effectively without publishing images that many would find offensive.” See also an Editor & Publisher roundup.

Well, I emphathize with the fear of violent wrath, but this still leads to many questions:

: Shouldn’t we be more offended by violent reaction to speech than we are by speech? Shouldn’t we express that?

: Are we — governments, publishers, journalists, citizens — intimidated by the violence?

: On the one hand, would there be equal offense to images of Christ? Well, we have seen images of Christ deemed blasphemous and heard anger and political storms but have not seen riots. On the other hand, wouldn’t there be offense to images deemed anti-Semitic? Given history, there would be.

: So then where is the line in hate speech? And isn’t that line itself perilous?

: Should American journalists be publishing these images in solidarity with European publishers? Or would that be pandering? Or are those images part of the story that need to be seen to understand? Is there a right to see them, a journalistic responsibility to include them in reporting?

: Am I a chicken by asking these questions and not answering them? That’s the one answer I’ll give: Yes.

But I think we need to see this episode as the frightening extreme of a culture of offense. When offensiveness becomes a sin and a crime and a cause for retribution and even violence, it’s never clear where the line is. When speech is free, that line is quite clear.