The Right to Cause Offence
There has been much debate in the media recently about free speech and the offence it may cause to others. In an article by Boris Johnson MP in the column that he writes for the Daily Telegraph he said that he felt “fully entitled” to expect women to remove face coverings when talking to him at his MP surgery, and expressed his opinion that the burka is oppressive and that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.
Some were outraged at his comments, while others supported his right to free speech, even if it does cause offence. There are three separate issues here that need to be considered:–
Security concerns about covering the face.
The right to wear whatever ones wishes.
The need to conform to the society in which one lives.
There are legitimate concerns about security. In airports, banks, or wherever there are security checks, it should be obligatory to remove face coverings. The law must be enforced impartially. If a bank or shop requires the removal of crash helmets and masks, no exception can be made on religious grounds as this would make it too easy for robbers or terrorists to circumvent security arrangements.
The right to wear whatever one wishes has limits that are determined by laws and bylaws, dress codes, and local customs. There are naturist beaches where anyone can go entirely naked, but elsewhere one would be charged with public indecency. The Naked Rambler has spent many years in prison because he refuses to comply with the law. There have been many legal cases fought over the right to wear religious symbols or the right not to conform to dress codes at work. In most cases the right of a company to make a dress code a contractual obligation have been upheld by the courts.
The UK government rejected a claim to prevent firms requiring women to wear high heels, claiming that the existing law on sex discrimination was adequate. However, the law is not enforced universally and many dress codes for women still reinforce sexist stereotypes that are outdated. A dress code that requires a woman to look sexy is unreasonable in most jobs. Unfortunately, western businesses have exploited the sexuality of women for so long that changing cultural attitudes is now very difficult. Air hostesses, waitresses, bar staff, receptionists, etc., are expected to look attractive to men, and there is no doubt that the physical appearance of female employees does affect the profitability of such businesses. Dress codes to protect workers’ health, e.g. steel-capped boots are fine, but no dress code should damage a worker’s health.
The third point about the need to conform to local custom is not something that can or should be enforced by the law. It is a matter of polite and civilised behaviour to assimilate into the community in which one lives or wherever one visits. When tourists visit foreign countries and if immigrants wish to integrate into their chosen country they will need to adjust their behaviour. To be insensitive to cultural norms is a sign of an uncivilised person. Those who don’t communicate with their neighbours are rightly regarded with suspicion. Anyone seeking permanent residence in a new country one should learn its language, history, and culture. It is not a violation of one’s human rights if one is not allowed to smoke in certain places, to play music in a library, or to wear shoes in a temple, mosque, or gurdwara. Private businesses, professional bodies, public swimming baths, Internet forums, and many other organisations make their own rules that members are expected to follow and may exclude them if they refused to abide by their regulations.
Satire and Justifiable Criticism
The tradition of poking fun at authority figures has been around for a very long time in the UK. The novel “Gulliver’s Travels,” by Jonathan Swift in 1726 was a satire. It was published anonymously and some passages were cut by the publisher for fear of prosecution. Readers enjoyed the political references, finding them humorous. However, members of the Whig party were offended, believing that Swift mocked their politics.²⁵ The satirical magazine Punch was first published in 1841. Its name being taken from the anarchic puppet of ‘Punch and Judy’ fame, which dates from the 16th century. The word ‘cartoon’ was adopted for its illustrations, which at the time meant a large sketch on cardboard.²⁶ Almost every newspaper now includes satirical cartoons, mostly lampooning political figures or others in the public eye. Punch is no longer printed, but the satirical magazine Private Eye, founded in 1961, is still regularly published, and also regularly sued by its victims allegedly libelled by the magazine.
There is a fine line between critical comment that may cause offence, and libel that may cause financial loss and damage a person’s reputation. If it is true, it is not libel, even though it may cause offence and damage a person’s interests. If critical comment that insults or causes offence is suppressed by the law or by cultural and religious values it will be easy for corruption to flourish. If any teaching is authentic it will be able to withstand criticism and ridicule.
The followers of the Buddha might become upset or angry if the Buddha were mocked or disrespected, but the Buddha himself never became angry. In Buddhist countries, the monks are revered, but as in other religions some of them are corrupt and shameless. Some have girlfriends, drink alcohol, or even engage in criminality, but it is rare for them to be charged. Ordinary pious Buddhists are fearful of criticising wicked monks, so any corruption is easily suppressed. Buddhists should study the Dhamma and Vinaya carefully to learn how to criticise wrong-doing without incurring blame for themselves