Society is Better When You are Offended

by Cameron Dominy, TFF Summer InternCharleston Southern University

As George Orwell so aptly stated, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” In lieu of the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges  SCOTUS decision, a group of my coworkers and I took to the streets to put this to the test.  We posed the following two scenarios to those we met:

Question 1:

An African American woman owns a bakery, and has for years.  A white male enters the bakery and orders a cake. He asks that the baker decorate the cake with a large confederate flag across its surface. The baker refuses. Should the baker still have to make the cake for the man?

Question 2:

An African American woman owns a bakery, and has for years. A white male enters the bakery and orders a cake. He asks that the baker create the cake for his upcoming same sex wedding. The baker refuses. Should the baker still have to make the cake for the man?

While the responses to the initial question were interesting, perhaps the most fascinating moments were the few, tense seconds following the presentation of scenario two. For those of the opinion that the baker, regardless of conviction,  still must make the first cake, the response was easy. But for the majority, the people who saw forcing a business owner to bake the first type of cake as ridiculous, the pause was uncomfortable indeed.  Most who we spoke to easily recognized that the small business owners right to conviction, needed to, at the very least, be revered, respected, and only removed in the most crucial of circumstances. To them, scenario number one was not a critical enough situation to warrant the baker legally losing her ability to decide.  Almost universally, the understanding was that it was foolish to remove this precious right to pursue personal convictions in either hypothetical situation we presented. In short; if they wouldn’t force the African American woman to bake the confederate flag cake, it would be blatantly inconsistent to insist that a similar woman lay down her rights for different, yet still moral argument. The situation deserved more discussion, and the people understood the value of such dialogue regardless of personal opinions.

But what if we, in our little experiment, had taken the questioning one step further? What if, we had asked those who recognized the importance of individual conviction in both situations if the woman should not only be coerced into the legal withdrawal of  her liberty of conviction, but should also lose the right to openly express any moral opposition. No doubt the response would have been a resounding “NO”. The removal of one right seemed foolish. Arguing that the loss of speech was warranted would have looked downright ridiculous. To remove the possibility what they had just recognized as a needed discussion would be counterintuitive, and ultimately harmful.

To be clear, there are certain times when our rights conflict with tangible societal good. For instance, the public isn’t told about certain national security measures the government takes, because our right to know conflicts with the societal interest of homeland security. Even our free speech rights are in some way limited. As the classic example goes, you can’t scream fire in a crowded theatre.

What has been illustrated in our society most recently however, is a growing number of the American public's belief that the right to free speech extends only to the line of personal offense, as defined by the party on the receiving end of criticism. The belief that offense matters more than reality, that perceived intent means more than actual circumstance.  This conflict has been has played out on a national scale, through the publicizing of the case against Sweet Cakes by Melissa, an Oregon bakery that refused to bake cakes for same sex weddings. Sweet Cakes was sued, and  subsequently fined $135,000 dollars, and was also issued a  “cease and desist” order. The latter of the two is much more concerning, as it essentially decrees they must refrain from stating their ongoing intention to hold to their moral beliefs. And what logic warrants this immediate halt of discussion? What legitimate reality makes it necessary for the court to intervene, and in doing so effectively end any and all debate? Stated in the decision:

“In addition to other emotional responses, RBC (Rachel Bowman-Cryer) described that being raised a Christian in the Southern Baptist Church, Respondent’s denial of service made her feel as if God made a mistake when he made her, that she wasn’t supposed to be, that she wasn’t supposed to love or be loved, have a family, or go to heaven. LBC (Laurel Bowman-Cryer) who was raised Catholic, interpreted the denial to represent that she was not a creature created by god, not created with a soul and unworthy of holy love and life…”

Both women were clearly upset, severely offended even. Their mental discomfort however, was entirely internal, and is even admitted to not be totally grounded in fact. The admission that they “interpreted the denial” to mean a number of different, and progressively far reaching conclusions, hints that while the feeling may have been intense for Rachel and Laurel, the offense taken was probably greater than any offense meant. And so, the debate that societal improvement depends upon is stopped, simply because two women convinced themselves that an action was much more sinister than it really was.

In a free society, we rely upon disagreement to yield improvement. When this system is working how it should, the value of a stance is based upon reason and logic.  Obviously, when individuals are told that they have a warped view of reason or reality, they tend to be offended, but all this is necessary and proper to produce a more civilized, better society. People must be offended, it is a crucial byproduct of healthy discussion.  In America however, as shown in the Oregon case,  the value of a position is no longer decided by the value of logic. Our legal system has allowed personal offense to become the new currency of debate, and its value is decided only in the eyes of the beholder.  Thus, the easiest way to move society in the direction you want is to cry offense, and insist that the value of your offense is greater than the value of the reason being used to combat you. It is impossible for society to discern what is truly beneficial under such circumstances.