He Who Dares Not Offend Cannot Be Honest

[Jump to 2018 Summary here. I get a lot of hits on this post, probably because of searches on the Paine quote in the title, but I worry the real point is missed. Daring to offend, being prepared to offend, is NOT a license to be offensive, UNLESS you are clearly seen as the joker in the current context. By default offense must be accidental and caring of (all) the individual human consequences.]

Shit is complicated, “simplistication” is bad, and the phrase of the day is:

Nuance is the Friend of Truth

Apparently Thomas Paine said:

“He Who Dares Not Offend Cannot Be Honest”

Yet again today, people who should know better confusing the ideas that freedom of expression is universal and that no-one has the right not to be offended, with the idea that there is some universal right to offend.

It is in fact perfectly true to say:

“Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending religion, culture and tradition.”

[Tweet (quoted above) by Chief Inspector Umer Khan deleted in response to twitter responses, including from the BHA.]

There is however no corollary that says the offender has any rights to harm or curb the freedoms of the offendee. I first ran up against this confusion when the main topic of the World Humanist Congress 2014 was Freedom of Thought and Expression. The Congress debated and created an “Oxford Declaration” that elaborated on the equivalent UN Declaration on freedoms of religious and non-religious thought and expression. Both declarations are actually very good, and subtly nuanced in all their glory:

In the same way, IHEU, BHA, NSS and all free-thought secularists everywhere are offended when the UN declaration is abbreviated to “Religious Freedom” implying any universal freedoms for religion in general, we should all be equally offended when the absence of any right not to be offended is abbreviated to:

Freedom to Offend

There is no such right or freedom to offend anyone (religious or otherwise) in any declaration anywhere.

As a political campaigning organisation BHA has the same right as anyone to abbreviated soundbites to get our messages across and our immediate aims achieved. But we must not confuse the rhetorical soundbites with actual truth beyond immediate campaigning aims. The truth is much more nuanced.


Previously on Psybertron – “There is No “Right to Offend“.
(With links to two follow-ups, and a fourth summary of all three.)

Also, more recently on Psybertron -“Respect for Value-Based Boundaries of Free-Discourse – summarising the generalisation of free-speech to repecting the rules of free-discourse generally.


9 thoughts on “He Who Dares Not Offend Cannot Be Honest”

  1. personal freedom in todays world has been taken way out of the original context! No one has the right to hurt someone else in the name of honesty. Honesty has to be tempered with common sense and compassion for others feelings

  2. If you ever have the chance to watch the old film “The Fallen Idol,” I recommend it highly. It’s a beautful exploration of the kindness of lies.

  3. If you intend to be totally honest in expressing your feelings, eventually you will offend someone. I believe the EST movement was built around this concept. So, the dilemma becomes this: total unmitigated honesty or tact.

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