Deborah Orr evidently wants to find some middle ground in the matter of insults to religious sensibility and angry protests in response to them. But she abandons the clear middle ground that is available to her in favour of a bunch of confusions.
Read Orr's first three paragraphs in today's Guardian and you could take from them, if you were so minded - she could take from them, if she were so minded - a quite straightforward distinction. People have a right to utter opinions by which others might be offended, but going out of one's way needlessly to offend is not, generally, a good way to behave; or, to put the same thing otherwise, it is mostly wrong to do so. In sum, you can act wrongly in exercising one of your rights. So Orr could condemn what she regards as gratuitous insult, without compromising the rights of free speech which are a precious legacy of democratic liberalism.
Instead of which she merely (by change of metaphor) muddies the water. Here's one bit of mud she stirs:
But who really thinks the right to offend is inalienable? Who believes that some hideous error was made when it became untenable to put a sign on the door of your pub saying: "No Irish, no blacks, no dogs"?
Refusing service to certain groups of people in a pub on grounds of ethnicity or colour may indeed offend, but it is the fact that it discriminates to the disadvantage of those groups without justified cause,and not just the fact that it gives offence, that makes it the proper target of legislation.
More mud: 'Free speech does not confer the right to be wrong, mistaken, biased or merely a doggedly axe-grinding pain-in-the-ass about your pet hates.' Yes, it does confer that right.
Most interesting mud of all:
[M]any of the Islamic values the west finds so reprehensible were our own settled values too, until embarrassingly recently. Islamic homophobia? Not acceptable.
Yet gay people in Britain only achieved the same rights to legal sex as heterosexuals in 2001. Islamic inequality in its treatment of men and women? Don't start me. Yet I remember a time when two women walking into a pub together was like two pheasants wandering on to a shooting range.
Barbarous Islamic punishment? We hanged our last murderers in 1964.
I love this style of objection. You see, we had similar prejudices only recently, so who are we to talk? Two responses. First, if you've got to a better place from a worse place, must you not say anything about the worse place being a worse place? Agreed, there are ways and ways of saying things, and one can say them, where necessary, with due regard for one's own previous shortcomings, rather than smugly, arrogantly, and all the rest of it. But the idea that the West is disqualified from criticizing undemocratic or otherwise baleful practices because it has some history of the same itself should not be indulged.
Second, those who purvey Orr's line of objection here never seem to see how it backfires. If 'we' can't say this to anybody else because we were so recently guilty of something similar, then we can't say it, period - not even in our own neighbourhood, so to speak. Homophobes in Ormskirk or Brighton? Male supremacists in Esher or Barnsley? Or (to change the boundaries of the neighbourhood) supporters of capital punishment in Delaware or Mississippi? We better shut up about it, since it wasn't so long ago etcetera etcetera; unless you have always been pure you're in no position to speak. So much for learning. So much for moral progress.