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In defense of the right to offend

What Charlie Hebdo, Kelvin Cochran, and My Husband's Not Gay have in common might surprise you.


T.J. Sullivan

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 9, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 7:38 pm CDT

Three items crawled across my Facebook newsfeed on Wednesday.

First, that Atlanta’s fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, was fired in November after self-publishing a religious book in which he called homosexuality a “perversion.” Publisher’s Weekly quoted Atlanta’s mayor Kasim Reid as saying the chief was fired for his “judgment,” which might expose the city to discrimination lawsuits, not his faith.

Second, an item promoting support of a Change.Org petition urging a boycott of an upcoming TLC show, My Husband’s Not Gay. In the program, debuting this month, a group of Mormon men married to women attempt to subvert their sexual attraction to men. Petition supporters believe the show might send negative messages to young LGBT people in religious settings.

Third, the breaking news about the terrorist attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo. Extremists have long targeted the magazine and its staff over depictions of the prophet Muhammad, and it appears that terrorists have now responded with violence.

Make no mistake, these three items are related.

We celebrate the immense power and connectivity the Internet has brought us. It has opened up economic, educational, and informational opportunities that couldn’t have existed one generation ago. A simple post on Twitter that takes 15 seconds to compose can inspire a victim, create awareness of a health crisis, or incite a riot halfway around the world—all within moments.

As we celebrate this immense new power, we must also realize that the concept of free speech is a critical value freshly in need of defense. As surely as we considered carefully the significance of the 1971 publishing of “The Pentagon Papers” or the 1989 censorship of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic art, we must consider today’s censorship battlefront.

Today, everyone seems willing to promote censorship of ideas they dislike. Some gay community members who might have defended the value of Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic art are now willing to attack a TLC reality show or the self-publishing of a public official. Our outrage and willingness to censor is highly subjective.

While I agree the TLC show is exploitative and potentially harmful, I cannot support a petition to boycott it. I can’t support the firing of a public official for self-publishing his ideas outside the domain of his professional capacity. With the exception of hate speech, I can’t support censorship of opinions I don’t like just because I don’t like them.

I may squirm at Chris Rock’s SNL monologue about the Boston Marathon bombing. I might question the value of cartoons that incense violent Islamic fundamentalists. However, I need to actively support the right of free thinking individuals to go there. The greatest threat to this treasured freedom is our personal or collective annoyance and outrage leading to an effort to shut free speech down.

Censorship is wrong, even when you disdain the item being censored. Check yourself. If you dislike something, change the channel, cancel your subscription, avoid the comedy club. The line between firing a public official publishing a repugnant opinion and shooting an automatic rifle at a satirist is a straight one.

Nothing is more critical to the evolution and preservation of a free society than provocative art and ideas. Offensive as it is, we must defend the right to offend.

This post originally appeared on the Good Men Project and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via Guillaume/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 9, 2015, 11:00 am CST