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:–

  1. Security concerns about covering the face.
  2. The right to wear whatever ones wishes.
  3. 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However, the law is not enforced universally and many dress codes for women still reinforce sexist stereotypes that are outdated.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.

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Why are Buddhists Killing the Rohingya People?

Virtuous Buddhists observe the five precepts, avoiding killing even snakes and scorpions. It is impossible that they would kill defenceless women and children.

  1. Not all Buddhists are virtuous. Soldiers, especially, are not famous for abstaining from killing.
  2. Buddhists who are normally virtuous sometimes kill in self-defence, e.g. if being attacked or robbed. It is still an unwholesome deed, but less serious. No court should convict them of murder.
  3. Unmindful and uneducated Buddhists who have been stirred up by hate-preaching monks, or by an angry mob, may kill others for no legitimate reason. Their crime is one of murder, and a racially motivated or religiously motivated hate crime at that. It is worse than killing in warfare, or a crime of passion, or even one motivated by greed, e.g. if disturbed by the owner when robbing his house. It is premeditated, first-degree murder. The hate-preachers are extremely blameworthy here. Monks should be preaching about tolerance and reconciliation, but note that “Idiot Compassion” is also wrong. The wrong-doers deserve to be punished by due process of the law.
  4. Killing for revenge is not killing in self-defence. If someone murders a murderer who killed their own relative, it is still murder in the eyes of the law. One would get a lighter sentence due to mitigating circumstances. However, due process should be followed. If the murderer escapes justice in this life, he or she will still face it in the next, so a Buddhist should be long-sighted, not short-sighted, as told in the life of Dīghayu in the Jātaka story.
  5.  Mob rule and vigilante groups only happen when the rule of law is weak, and the judiciary and police are corrupt. This is the situation in Rakhine state. The Rohingya population have long been subjected to injustice, denied citizenship, education, medical care, and other basic human rights.
  6. Every country needs to deal with illegal immigration in a way that is just and not inhumane. Where no evidence of legal immigration can be shown, migrants and their families should be deported to their country of origin.

Fake News

As far as possible, one should avoid speech that is displeasing to others, but sometimes it is necessary to refute untruths. Nowadays, there is a lot of fake news available as it is easy for rumours to spread without anyone checking the facts. Even before the invention of the Internet, this was a problem. Sir Winston Churchill said: “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” (Brainy Quotes)

Politicians with an agenda use lies and half-truths to stir up hatred between different groups. Religious and political leaders should be promoting tolerance and harmony, but many seek their own advantage by spreading intolerance and racism. In the Dabbhapuppha Jātaka, a wily jackal saw two otters disputing over the ownership of a fish. He offered his services to make a judgement on their dispute. They agreed, so he gave the head to one, the tail to the other, and took the middle for himself.

In any community where there are people of different religions, or from different ethnic backgrounds, the entire community can be prosperous if they co-operate and remain in harmony. Even within a family or a workplace there can be disputes. Wherever harmony is destroyed, everyone suffers. People may be lynched or beaten to death on the basis of a rumour. Careers, friendships, and marriages can be destroyed by false allegations. Anyone who claims to be fighting the war on error should make a proper inquiry before accepting as true the statement of another, words written in any book or on the Internet. Whenever accusations of serious wrong-doing are made, such as murder, theft, or sexual assault, a proper investigation should be made by the police and a judgement made in the courts. If the decision is just, everyone should accept it and abide by the ruling. If it is not, then one can appeal to a higher court, or just accept it as the result of past evil kamma and get on with one’s life. The world is full of injustice, and it is seldom worthwhile dedicating one’s entire life to reversing an unjust decision.