There’s criminal behavior. There’s offensive behavior. And they are not always the same thing.
A “criminal offense” falls into both categories. In general, law-breaking is offensive at some level – those behaviors that society-at-large generally agrees is *not okay*. (Think of The Ten Commandments here – particularly stealing in all it’s forms, killing and murder.)
Then there’s “offensive” behavior that can seem criminal – selfish, inconsiderate, unkind, uncharitable behaviors. (Think of people being jerks and the a-word here.)
In a society that values free speech and the idea of others being able to hold different views and beliefs than ourselves as a right, the trade-off is a bit more tolerance for offensive behavior. A bit-more-tolerance doesn’t mean the offensive behavior is acceptable, but neither should it be viewed and responded to as high crime. (Think of the kid at school who does something stupid for whatever reason kids do stupid things. Do they really need to be dragged out of the school in hand-cuffs by armed officers? Is this the most effective manner by which to intervene and address the behavior?)
Then there’s the recent incident of the college student taunting protesters on campus who were exercising their right to peacefully assemble and protest, by his wearing a gorilla mask, handing out bananas, carrying rope and a bag with a confederate flag (and a marijuana leaf.) Did he threaten to kill anyone? – No, but he did interfere in others’ rights to express their positions and concerns in a socially acceptable manner – in a vile, hateful display – designed to hurt, cause emotional pain, and possibly to fan the flames and incite a disturbance.
Perhaps addressing offensive behavior early on can help prevent offensive behavior from escalating to criminal behavior, but that addressing may be more effective if it comes from a position of unity and sameness, not from division and difference.
Whether it’s factual or not, there’s this story that has been around that might help to elucidate the point. It’s about an indigenous communal society somewhere in the world where when one of the members commits an unacceptable act, community members encircle the person, and then everyone reminds the person of all the good deeds he has done and his redeeming traits and qualities, with the belief that for the person to have done such a horrendous act, he must have “forgotten” who he really is, forgotten his humanity. – Addressing issues from a place of unity – not division and exclusion.
If we choose to address offensive behavior from a position of power, division and exclusion, it drives the underlying foundational beliefs that fuel behavior underground, unexpressed – where it gets to simmer and roil, awaiting an opportunity for some sort of expression.
To stifle free-speech – a form of expression – is counter-productive to addressing problematic beliefs and behavior. Allowing free-speech – no matter how offensive – allows it to surface, can serve as an opportunity to address it. (Suppression doesn’t make “the problem” go away – it resurfaces, albeit in masked forms sometimes.)
Maybe more mercy and unity, and a lot less judgment and division, can help us to reorient ourselves to a more dignified humanity.