On Being Offended

It’s a grave sense of entitlement that leads people to claim one’s rights are being taken away when you’re simply being refused special treatment.

Such is the case with 19 year old Nova Scotian William Swinimer, now infamous in Canadian newspapers for wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Life is Wasted Without Jesus” despite repeatedly being asked by school authorities not to. Were the case simply about the t-shirt, this case would make for something of a conundrum. On the one hand, it is a school’s responsibility to try and ensure a comfortable and welcoming environment for all its students, regardless of faith or creed; if t-shirts such as Swinimer’s inhibit this goal, many claim the ban is justified. However, one must remember we do not have a fundamental right to protection from being offended. The ability to deal elegantly with ideas that are uncomfortable to you is a great virtue, and a skill all people must learn in this increasingly small but still diverse world; a skill more and more kids may be leaving high school without.

Of course, it isn’t simply about the t-shirt. Vice-president of the school council Katelyn Hiltz informed the CBC that Swinimer had been an aggressive and disruptive presence at the school even before making use of his wardrobe, picking fights with other kids who didn’t share his beliefs. “It started with him preaching his religion to kids and then telling them to go to hell,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t want to deal with this anymore.” Behaving this way, be it for religious reasons or no, has been a suspendable offense in schools for ages, so it should come as no surprise to anyone if they ask him to leave permanently, let alone the mere five days they chose. However, because his behaviour was inspired by his Christianity, many Canadians are now calling foul, saying his religious rights are being infringed upon.

What sort of attitude inspires the idea that Swinimer is being mistreated simply because he’s being held to the same rules and standards as the other kids? A common explanation is that these are the “shrinking pangs” of a traditionally entitled belief system adjusting to an increasingly secular, multicultural context. There’s resentment amongst many that voicing their religious convictions is now subject to the same rules of social etiquette as everything else, including rules of verbal harassment.

True, unfettered religious freedom does not exist for Canadian students like Swinimer: what religious freedom they have is bounded by the laws of their respective schools, let alone those of Canada. This is simply something everyone will need to get used to, and it’s this author’s hope that inter-faith groups continue to multiply and grow to aid this transition.

3 comments on this post.
  1. Dale:

    Freedom of expression is not unlimited in Canada and within a school, especially public, it must also be taken into account that the students there need to be able to feel safe. If that means limiting freedoms of others that they would otherwise have outside of school then so be it.

    When I first heard about the story I didn’t know about the preaching and bullying the student was doing in school. I just knew about his shirt and I was like, “ya, so what?” Than I heard the other part and understood why the line was drawn.

  2. Angela Squires:

    What happens in Europe and the UK usually reaches Canada later. Over there they are dealing with religious freedom issues that boggle the mind. Examples are the demands of Islam for prayer rooms in the workplace and other special considerations in a secular society. An upcoming lecture at the Chan Centre is of interest in this regard.

    2012 – MILTON K. WONG LECTURE – Speaker – Kenan Malik – Sunday, June 3, 2012

    Join speaker Kenan Malik as he discusses “What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perspective”
    This free lecture is presented by the Laurier Institute as part of the Milton K. Wong Lecture Series on Sunday, Jun 3, 2012, 7-9pm, Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

    How should European societies respond to the influx of peoples with different traditions, backgrounds and beliefs? What should be the boundaries of tolerance in such societies? Should immigrants be made to assimilate to Western customs and norms or is integration a two-way street?

    Such questions lie at the heart of the ‘multiculturalism’ debate that currently grips many European nations. Thirty years ago multiculturalism was seen as the answer to many of Europe’s social problems. Today it is seen as the cause of myriad social ills. Why the change? Are the critics right that multiculturalism has failed? And are there any European lessons for Canada?
    Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include From Fatwa to Jihad (2009), Strange Fruit (2008), Man, Beast and Zombie (2000), and The Meaning of Race (1996).

    FREE ADMISSION – Doors open at 6pm, tickets available at the door. For more information: call 604.822.1444 (UBC Continuing Studies)

  3. Darryl Wright:

    Considering the t-shirt alone my instant reaction was that it would be an understatement to say he should be “allowed” to wear that t-shirt or any other. More to the point, it would be presumptuous and outlandishly arrogant for anyone to even discuss whether or not anyone needed permission. What right does anyone have to prevent someone from expressing themselves (idiotic as it may be) on their t-shirts?

    The other details, of course, probably precipitated the outcome – at least I’d have to believe that in order to sleep well at night.

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