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That Unclean Piglet:

From Mark Steyn:

Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council (Tory-controlled) has now announced that, following a complaint by a Muslim employee, all work pictures and knick-knacks of novelty pigs and "pig-related items" will be banned. Among the verboten items is one employee's box of tissues, because it features a representation of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. And, as we know, Muslims regard pigs as "unclean", even an anthropomorphised cartoon pig wearing a scarf and a bright, colourful singlet.

Cllr Mahbubur Rahman is in favour of the blanket pig crackdown. "It is a good thing, it is a tolerance and acceptance of their beliefs and understanding," he said. That's all, folks, as Porky Pig used to stammer at the end of Looney Tunes. Just a little helpful proscription in the interests of tolerance and acceptance.

And where's the harm in that? As Pastor Niemöller said, first they came for Piglet and I did not speak out because I was not a Disney character and, if I was, I'm more of an Eeyore.

Steyn's piece is much worth reading, partly because it makes some important substantive points (assuming that it is factually accurate, though I have no reason to doubt that) and partly because his work is always so readable. But I think it highlights a broader point, too.

It's good manners, good business, and good for society when people make some accommodations of others' preferences. If something offends your neighbors or especially your customers — or, if you run a government institution, your citizens — it often makes sense to see whether you can easily reduce that offense. We do it all the time within our own culture: An advertiser will rarely put up ads that offend many of its potential customers; many people refrain from swearing around those who dislike it; when a few customers of software that I wrote objected to a program that I had written and called GOD (with no blasphemous intentions on my part, I assured you), we were happy to make special tapes that didn't contain the program. It makes sense that we do this with regard to customers or citizens who don't share some aspects of the majority's culture.

But accommodation has to be a two-way street: If something that others do offends you (especially with no intention on their part), it often makes sense to see whether you can reduce your own offense. Again, people in the cultural mainstream have often learned this, and people in minority groups should learn it, too. Are you really that offended by "pig-related items" put up by the nonbelievers? Can you perhaps live with them? Can you consider that demands that others change their innocently intended practices, especially ones that they may see as fondly recalled aspects of their own culture, might themselves come across as offensive?

Moreover, if failure to accommodate minority cultures' preferences is generally condemned as insensitivity, and people feel obligated to accommodate such preferences, the minority group members may sometimes end up feeling more offended and alienated rather than less. If I think accommodation is a favor that I'm asking — especially when that accommodation rests in stopping others from posting materials that they like to post — then if someone politely says "sorry, no," I might often be annoyed but not deeply wounded. But if I'm told that it's my right (whether legal or moral), and failure to accommodate is a violation of my rights, then each such polite "sorry, no" becomes an outright insult, which should make feel quite offended and wronged. Conversely, if I'm told that I'm entitled to get others to stop posting materials that offend me, and if they go along with my demands, then my demands may well constantly grow, as my friends and I discover more and more things that annoy us, and that aren't the way that they would be if we were the majority.

None of this resolves particular controversies, of course. Should people who like to wear revealing clothes dress a little less scantily to accommodate the sensibilities of some religiously conservative classmates, coworkers, neighbors, and the like (much as people often modify their dress to accommodate the sensibilities of others in other situations)? Should civic institutions schedule their events so that people who observe the Sabbath, or celebrate various other holidays, can take advantage of them? Should they accommodate their schedule of celebrations so they don't fall in times that are days of mourning for some small but significant part of the community? Should they omit symbols or references that, while well-intentioned, may be seen as blasphemous by some? There's no simple answer that covers all this.

But I am pretty sure that it would be a mistake to have a rule — or even a strong presumption — under which an "I'm offended" by some observers imposes an obligation on others to accommodate the offended. Such a rule may be aimed at increasing social harmony, and decreasing offense; but in many cases, it may actually increase both social friction and felt offense.

Thanks to Clayton Cramer for the pointer.

Noel Magee:
It does strike me that any world view which cannot accommodate context is fatally flawed. I certainly used god.pub.vesoft on a regular basis and the name made sense. A program which made one omnipotent ... within the context of the operating system on which it was used. An analogy, perhaps, to whoever's diety in whatever other context. To be offended and believe that there was some real equivalence would be just plain silly. Such silliness does seem to be far more prevalent these days, from parts of almost all religious communities.
10.4.2005 6:31pm
Tom952 (mail):
Rahman engages in a chip-on-shoulder form of aggression against his fellow citizens rather than a sincere expression of offense. After all, there are no actual pigs or pig products involved, and the cutsy cartoons composed of ink and paper are not in any way unclean in the Muslim-pig sense.

We cannot get along and function efficiently together if we are all allowed to select our own shoulder chips based not on personal limitations but upon arbitrarily adopted beliefs and attitudes, and then go about impinging upon other's rights by demanding accommodation. The social model requiring individual sensitivity to other's needs must have some rules to prevent this type of manifestation in order to be valid.
10.4.2005 6:40pm
Hoosier:
I don't see what the big deal is. I'm a Catholic, and I've asked my workplace to ban the use of contraception by my colleagues: Their small family sizes offend me. I mean, I accept Griswold as /law/ and all. But if it hurts my feelings or makes me uncomfortable, then I think the action of another doesn't really fall under the umbrella of privacy.

We'll see how my supervisor responds to this suggestion.
10.4.2005 6:44pm
David Locke (mail):
almost all religious communities, Noel? That's a pretty broad brush you're painting with.
10.4.2005 6:45pm
Noel Magee:
Yes, it is. But then I really prefer spray guns. Actually, you misquote to some degree as I used a qualifying "parts of ..."
10.4.2005 7:14pm
KenB (mail):
Of course accommodation must be a two-way street. The only thing I object to in this post is this bit:

people in minority groups should learn it, too

which suggests that people in minority groups have not learned it (of course, absent any quantifier over "people", it's hard to know exactly whom Prof. Volokh has in mind). The fact that certain outspoken people occasionally make fairly absurd demands shouldn't obscure the fact that most members of minority groups are "accommodating" the majority on a regular basis in any number of ways. Also, it's usually a mistake to assume in these outlying cases that the person voicing the complaint speaks for his/her entire community.
10.4.2005 10:24pm
Yankee_Mark:
Perhaps it's pretty un-PC of me ... but I tend to like the characterization of our society as a melting pot and see a certain obligation of its members to melt and/or assimilate. It's quite OK to revel in differences and all, but this event as described has the feel of someone looking/working really hard to find something to be offended by.
10.4.2005 11:12pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I'm perfectly content with people who ask the rest of us to refrain from any type of conduct. We should be able to hear that without any problem. But I question the folks who think reflexive compliance with such requests is has become a social obligation. It's often just an opportunity for meaningless moral exhibitionism.
10.4.2005 11:19pm
markm (mail):
How long until Rahman follows up his success in banning cartoon pigs by demanding that sausage, bacon, and ham be removed from the stores?
10.6.2005 6:45pm