There was quite a controversy around here recently. A local politician said something that offended a bunch of people and this lead to a roaring debate about whether she should apologise, stick to her guns or just admit that she’s Hitler, and die.
Some tried to defend her by saying that the things she’d said were not in fact offensive. But this is a silly approach. If someone says that they are offended you’d need to have some pretty good evidence or some very large balls to go “no you’re not!”.
If someone says they are offended then they probably are.
But that’s not the point. A better strategy is one that no-one seemed to have thought of: ask why the fuck we should even care if someone gets offended?
I mean sure, offending people is bad, and if you can express yourself without offending anyone then that should really be the way to go.
Additionally, we are talking about a politician, and politicians who make a habit of pissing people off tend to lose elections.
But that wasn’t what this particular politician was being criticised for. People weren’t saying that she had offended people and that this was a bad thing because of something else. They were saying “she’s offended people” and then stopping there as if that was crime enough.
Well, it’s not.
There are plenty of things that need to be said that will nevertheless offend people.
If I say that George Bush is an imperialist warmonger who lied to the American people (and the world) and invaded Iraq primarily to secure oil and corporate kickbacks I will offend literally millions of people in a deep and genuine way.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say it.
Of course the other side of the story is the problem of hate speech. Hate speech, if strictly defined, doesn’t just offend people it actually causes harm. Hate speech speech can traumatise people, bias whole societies or inspire actual violence. It is, along with slander, false advertising and “dangerous speech” (like yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre) one of the few types of speech that should be battled against and restricted.
But the reasons why these forms of speech are bad requires examination.
Slander is bad because it allows a person to damage another person’s reputation, business and many other aspects of their life, without the person being able to do anything about it. If anything the Internet has made this worse because it means that accusations that are later proven false remain online, forever. Slander is bad because it’s an easy way to cause a type of harm that is very difficult to fix.
But just remember: in order to be slander something has to be untrue.
False advertising is bad because it prompts people to make poor choices, regardless of their own interests. False advertising is used by energy companies to support their destruction of the environment. It is used by political parties to manipulate the electorate and thus weaken democracy.
In the past it has even been used to trick people into poisoning themselves, and their loved ones.
Of course these days we have laws about advertising so there’s just no way that someone could claim to heal your skin by manipulating your fucking DNA.
Lastly, dangerous speech (sorry, couldn’t find a better name for it) is bad because, obviously, it puts people in danger. In the cliched example of yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre the speech is bad because it is likely to cause a panic in which people could get seriously injured. For similar reasons we shouldn’t let Charles Manson have a YouTube channel or let Dick Cheney talk to human beings.
Anyway, my point is that all of these forms of speech are restricted because they have proven negative consequences for real people in the real world. And I’m not even sure about them. In fact I think that even with these categories of speech we already often go too far in restricting them.
Oprah was sued by the beef industry because when she said she was thinking twice about eating a burger it damaged their business. Restricting political ads on the grounds of ‘false advertising’ too often turns into a way of shutting down opposition to the ruling powers. And the “fire in a theatre” example was originally used as a way of prosecuting a guy for protesting against the first world war.
My stance is that all speech is ok unless there is a proven negative effect that violates someone’s human rights. In all other cases it should be allowed, no matter how despicable it is.
And when you take this longer view then objecting to something that has been said because it is offensive, and for no other reason, seems pretty unconvincing, even childish. If you cannot move on and say “it is offensive because…” so that we can then have a conversation about that, and whether or not they are good reasons, then you shouldn’t be surprised if you get ignored.
Offending people is bad, make no mistake of that. But it is not nearly as bad as unduly restricting freedom of speech. Because that is what these claims of offence often end up doing. The offended person stakes a claim in a privileged part of the discussion, and frames all later parts of the discussion within that context. In a single move they make the remainder of the discussion all about them and their feelings.
Whereas before their feelings might have formed part of the discussion now they have swallow it whole, even though they rarely have any right to do that.
As I’m sure you can gather from the way I’ve tried to work through all this these issues are complex but let it suffice to restate what I already said above: offence does not imply privilege.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]