The Fourth Tenet of The Satanic Temple reads, “The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.”
Of all the Seven Tenets, this is the one that inspires the most discussion and pushback. A lot of people have a visceral reaction to the word “offense.” I have seen some decide that this one Tenet crosses an ethical line and that they cannot consider themselves TST Satanists.
It’s ok if people decide this Tenet is a deal breaker. No one is obligated to believe what I believe, and it is perfectly acceptable to conclude that certain underlying principles just aren’t true. That’s what it means to live in a pluralistic society.
Because we are currently living with the political consequences of online free speech maximalism, it makes sense that some people would be skeptical of “the freedom to offend”. Instead of seeing the Tenet for what it is, we see that one disgusting Twitter troll who ruined our day in the name of “free speech”. I believe this is understandable but wrong, and I want to explore why.
An important note: the Tenets are open to interpretation, and the following is mine. For the sake of clarity, I will use direct and unambiguous wording for the rest of this article, but keep in mind that this is all my own interpretation of the Fourth Tenet, and it is ok (healthy, even!) to disagree with me.
The Fourth Tenet is about protecting all fundamental rights and freedoms
If we read the Tenet without getting distracted, we see these words: “the freedoms of others should be protected.” This tenet is about protecting all fundamental freedoms. This might be an obvious point, but I think it’s worth making because the word “offense” tends to take up all the oxygen in the discourse surrounding this Tenet.
For me, this includes the right to a fair trial. This includes bodily autonomy. This includes the freedom to think, read, and move. This includes the freedom of the press and religion, the freedom to vote, and freedom from discrimination on the basis of immutable or harmless characteristics.
Contextualized in this way, I believe that we can begin to have a healthy discussion about what the Fourth Tenet actually means.
The Fourth Tenet is others-centric
If we read the Tenet again, we see a keyword: “The freedom of others should be respected”, and then later, “to willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo your own”.
This tenet is sometimes interpreted as free license to be as deplorable, shocking, offensive, or reactively blasphemous as possible. But this is to fundamentally misread the clear wording: this Tenet isn’t about us. It isn’t about you. It’s about protecting the rights of others and, in doing so, protecting ourselves.
This principle has some feel-good consequences. The Satanic Temple defends reproductive rights, the bodily autonomy of children in schools, and freedom of religion for fellow weirdos like us. That’s nice. We all get to give ourselves a round of applause.
But there are more challenging implications of this others-centric heuristic: no matter how offensive I find Charlie Kirk, I will not call for the government to restrain his speech and religious practice, even though he nakedly calls for the force of the law to be used against people like me.
Similarly, TST released an amicus brief defending the right of the objectively awful Catholic group Church Militant to protest without the encroachment of government onto their rights.
This doesn’t feel as good. It might even feel like an ethical endorsement of Church Militant or Charlie Kirk, but that’s misguided. As we see in the Tenet itself, to willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
If the precedent is set for violating freedoms, then our own freedoms will quickly follow. If we decide that Church Militant shouldn’t have the legal right to protest, or we sit on the sidelines while Church Militant gets pushed out of the public square through legal force, we sow the seeds of our own destruction. If we find Chuch Militant offensive, consider how offensive theocrats and conservative Christians find the existence of Satanists. I will be the first to fall if freedom of speech is no longer protected. I dare not set that precedent by demanding the speech of others be legislated against.
No one ever wants to infringe on inoffensive speech
So, we have established important context provided by the wording of the Fourth Tenet itself: the Tenet is others-centric, focused on protecting all fundamental rights, and in doing so our own. But the word “offense” is still right there at the center of it all. It would, perhaps, be more concise to say, “The freedoms of others should be respected. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.” So, why is the word “offense” important at all?
No one ever wants to infringe on inoffensive speech and practice. There’s no one calling for the law to prohibit the Anglicans from playing bridge together. There’s no one demanding that Christmas Pageants should be abolished. We are all perfectly comfortable with fundamental rights when we don’t feel threatened by the beliefs and actions of people practicing them.
The impulse to limit the freedoms of others is only ever in response to offense. Offense, disgust, and moral outrage are the sole motivators for restricting the freedoms of others. Protecting fundamental freedoms is, by default, to protect the right to offend.
If we proclaim a commitment to protecting fundamental freedoms without clearly stating that offense is included, then we give ourselves a tidy loophole to betray the principle when it becomes too uncomfortable for us.
The Fourth Tenet is constrained by the other six
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also, and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.” The same could be said of Satanic virtues.
Any Tenet, when left on its own, becomes pathological. The right to offend, when standing alone, can too easily slip into free speech maximalism that practices no regard for the well-being of others or the Constitution of Knowledge. Compassion, justice, bodily autonomy, and scientific reasoning all have their pathological extremes if not constrained by outside principles.
The Tenets are a unit and function in balance with each other. I might have a fundamental right to say something ugly, but is it compassionate to say that thing? (Tenet One) Does it further the cause of justice? (Tenet Two) Does it adhere to my best scientific understanding? (Tenet Five) Was it false or destructive, and therefore warrant an apology? (Tenet Six)
I’m convinced that a great deal of the angst over the Fourth Tenet comes from reading it in isolation. It isn’t license to be a bully or maximally crude. Instead, the Fourth Tenet exists within the framework of the other six, the purpose of which is established in the seventh:
“These tenets are designed to inspire nobility in action and in thought.”