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.