A high school student, William Swinimer, is now suspended from his school in Nova Scotia for wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Life is wasted without Jesus’, the CBC reports. Some people apparently find that offensive. The CBC quotes the school board’s superintendent as saying that “[w]hen one is able or others are able to interpret it as, ‘If you don’t share my belief then your life is wasted,’ that can be interpreted by some as being inappropriate.” The authorities are now apparently trying to find a “compromise” of some sort. In the meantime, the politicians have jumped in, with the education Minister supporting the school board, and the opposition critical.
Well, at the risk of offending the bleeding hearts of Nova Scotia’s education establishment, I want to say that life is wasted without freedom. And if you can’t stand the sight of an idea that you find offensive, kindly go on and bleed. It is remarkable that in 2012 it is still necessary to insist on and to fight for the recognition of the principle that freedom of expression cannot be conditional on the failure of those who see or hear a statement to take offence. If that were the condition, no statement would be protected from censorship. I, for instance, take offence at politicians and bureaucrats denying my and my fellow-citizens’ rights. (I mean it. I do find it offensive.) What then? All I can do is try to persuade people, as I am trying to persuade you, that they are wrong. What is it that could give me the right to force them to shut up?
But, they will say, their case is different because they are public officials. They have a job to do. They must preserve a nice cozy learning environment in schools, or something like that. There a couple of things to say to that.
First, if school is going to be more than a rote-learning factory, and serve to prepare people for the outside world, it is silly to want to it to be free from any controversial ideas, including claims that some ways of living are better than others. This is especially so in high school, where the students can be expected to have the maturity to deal with unpleasant and critical ideas. If it is ok to suppress such ideas in school, is it also ok in university? Why not? There’s a learning environment to foster there, and lots of bleeding hearts who might get offended. Should we summarily fire all the ethicists and political philosophers, most law professors, and countless others who are in the business of telling people that some ways of living are better than others? Or is it enough to just prohibit normative scholarship in curricula?
And second, schools are not, in fact, free from controversial ideas and value judgments. They teach – well I hope they still do – literature for example, which is full of ideas on how one ought, and how one ought not, to live. If in a discussion of Hamlet, a student expresses the view that hesitation, reflection, and soliloquies are for weaklings, should he be suspended because the less resolute, or more prudent, of his classmates find that kind of claim offensive? Or should Hamlet just not be taught, lest it give some “insensitive” kids the occasion for offending their classmates?
Censoring offence out of existence is never going to work. But attempts to do so will stand in the way of talking about not only religion, but philosophy, politics, and art. It will make the world a very boring place indeed. Life is wasted without freedom.