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Posted by on Oct 7, 2013 in Freedom of Expression, Secularism | 9 comments

We Should Wear Banned T-Shirts

 

Just because we have the freedom to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it. This line is often repeated in response to people claiming ‘free expression’ in response to criticism. It’s true, of course. I’m free to stick straws up my nose and grunt like a maniac – but I won’t. I’m free to call an overweight friend fat, but it wouldn’t be a nice thing to do. We rightly refrain from doing things that we are free to do, all the time.

Now imagine that the freedom to stick straws up my nose is taken away, on the grounds that a group of people don’t like it; they’re offended. How should I respond? One way is to capitulate – I didn’t need to put straws up my nose anyway. The danger here is that by letting people get away with curtailing our freedom purely because they don’t like something opens us up to all sorts of problems. I don’t like pop music, and hate hearing it in public. I’ve never suggested that it should be banned, but if I put my own preferences above the civil liberties of others, I’d ban it in a flash. This system only works if you privilege particular groups over others; an idea unpalatable to a liberal.

The other path is defiance. We show that we will not be forced into not doing something just because it’s ‘offensive’ to (some) others. The only way to really defy such force is to do the thing that is prohibited. To wear the t-shirts banned by a students’ ‘union’. To draw Mohammed.

Yes, drawing Mohammed may upset people, and ordinarily it would be wrong to do so if your goal is to upset people (though if you needed to depict Mohammed for any kind of project, then some people being offended isn’t a good enough reason to rethink your project). But if you are told “you aren’t allowed to depict Mohammed” or “since I can’t force you not to depict Mohammed then I’ll threaten you or others with harm instead” then I think you have an obligation, or at the very least the right to say “no, I will not be forced in that way”. The only way to make this statement is to draw Mohammed.

So, if the LSE SU want to ban wearing Jesus and Mo t-shirts from their events, those students committed to freedom of expression (not just atheists/humanists) ought to consider protesting by going ahead and wearing these t-shirts in public places around the LSE.

Yes, just because you are free to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. But if you aren’t free to do it? I think that provides a very good reason to do it.

anti

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Just to pre-empt an objection: if someone is walking around calling people fat then that might justify their removal. These t-shirts are targeting some religious thinking but not all religious believers. It isn’t saying “Muslims are stupid” or “Christians are idiots”. The offence is that it is critical of religion at all, or that Mohammed is depicted. These aren’t things that would pass as unethical conduct in a secular society.

  • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

    A good, nuanced post – thanks.

  • ThePrussian

    Excellent point. There was once a kerfuffle over a “Jesus is a cunt” t-shirt which I couldn’t wear, but this one is fine.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Yes, just because you are free to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. But if you aren’t free to do it? I think that provides a very good reason to do it.

    Agreed! In my next comment, I’m going to try to violate every single rule in your commenting policy.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Excellent post, Notung!

  • Pogsurf

    Freedom of expression? Great. Don’t forget the Islamist Society have also booked a table for the Freshers’ Fayre, and will be displaying their sign:

    http://jalalabad.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/behead.jpg

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

    I agree and disagree as there is no point in been an idiot. But for example drawing Muhammed is meant to get you death, so even if it upsets every Mulsim on earth it is worth it as the punishment for doing this is ridiculous and deserves criticism.

    Just out of curiosity: “Christians are idiots” I agree is bad but what about “Christians beliefs are idiotic.”

  • Axel Blaster

    I may be a nut when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That’s what growing up in a family that opposes politically the dictator that runs your country of birth does to your psyche.
    I hate what the Westboro Baptist Church stands for but I was glad when the Supreme Court ruling upheld their right. We take for granted freedom of speech in the US. It’s one of those things that are only appreciated when they can’t be exercised. This philosophy has also allowed me to take less offense when I’m the target of speech that I find offensive.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    I’m going to wear my agnosticism t-shirt whenever I visit your site. ;)