The recent Paris terrorist attacks brought into focus for me the whole issue of how freedom of expression operates in the public and private domain. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that, in all this coverage, there was nothing (at least that I saw) about the essence of this issue.
No, it is not about Islam, but it is about the relationship between the expression of ideas and the reaction of the receivers. This is the crux of all this.
If you are a regular reader of this part of our Republic newspaper, you know that there are times when people take offense to what is written in various letters. And that is even though the editors try to keep polite most of what is submitted.
As I ponder all this, it is apparent that what people find offensive is a function of their personal thought process and not a consequence of some outside input. We make up our own state of offended.
Think about it for a minute. You tell a joke to a group of people, some laugh, some cringe, and some feel offended. Now, is it the joke that creates the offense, or is it the mindset of those hearing it? Of course, it is in the mind of the beholder. If then people get insulted, they can make their comments in return.
Freedom of expression goes to and fro. Human beings contain a vast multitude of ideas, beliefs, values, etc. that can find offense in almost anything. Demanding that everyone obey their version of the world and not offend them is impossible.
It reminds me of that childhood saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” How did we lose sight of that, in our politically correct mentality? Now, this is not to blame the victim, nor is it license to attack people intentionally to create a negative reaction. It is just how we humans work.
To me, underneath all this, is a power and control issue. Some like to think that life is a simple cause-and-effect world, so I will say something to get you to have a reaction. To “push your buttons,” as we like to say. That is an example of trying to control someone’s behavior or emotions. And on the other side, there are those who can be offended by just about anything, and they want to outlaw certain language, comments, pictures, ideas, etc. It is a power struggle on both sides.
Think of Copernicus and how he was ostracized by the church when he first proposed that the sun does not go around the earth, but the opposite is true. This outraged the high priests who solemnly believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. They used their power to threaten his life.
This freedom of expression has been around a long time, and so have the offended parties. Now, we understand that the offended parties, in that case, were ignorant of the facts. The facts can be the basis of a dialogue and not a heated argument or threats.
What is the conclusion of this column? People will say and write things that, depending on your personal background, you may find offensive. It is your issue, not the speaker or the writers. Reacting out of anger or hatred or violence is only a sign of your own misunderstanding of how you and the rest of this world of human thinking/communication operates. It is not the fault of others that we have these reactions.
We all look at things in so many varying ways, it is impossible to write or say something that no one finds offensive, unless we dumb down our discourse to the inane and mundane.
As we read these pages in the future, and we find ourselves feeling offended, then we need to take a look at our own thinking and ask why we believe that all the rest of the world must obey my rules and ideas of life. Why do I fear that others hold a different view?
And instead of an anger response, turn that energy into developing and refining your views of how things should work and put them forth on these pages.
Express yourself, and do not be surprised if someone out there is offended. It is how we work.
Columbus retiree Tom Lane served as a consultant to a number of companies in his career. In recent years his has been a familiar name to readers of The Republic’s letters to the editor. He can be reached at [email protected].