This month’s chunk for the Birmingham Post:
Should we have the right to offend?
I ask this not because I was personally offended by Joe Kinnear’s swear-a-thon. Nor even because I offended my partner by licking my knife in a restaurant. I ask because there just seems to be a lot of people getting easily offended.
Being almost twenty years since Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ was published could it just be ‘déjà vu’? No, but there are some similarities.
I was at an event for fifty ‘leaders’ – I was included in this so use the term loosely – last week in Whitehall that sought to consider ‘security and community cohesion’ (a euphemism for extremism and terrorism, natch). Whilst many clearly focused on this, a few were voicing their plans to protest against the publication of ‘The Jewel of Medina’, a Mills and Boon-lite account of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha. Possibly because of their ‘offence’ at this, they seemed to have forgotten the clear lessons learned from some of the protests that followed the Satanic Verses and Danish cartoons debacles.
A few days ago, I also read how others were ‘offended’ by a London exhibition by the artist Sarah Maples. Described as the next Tracey Emin, Maples – who was raised as a Muslim – has caused ‘offence’ by using one of her paintings – depicting a Muslim woman cradling a pig – as the advertisement for the exhibition. Maples has categorically stated that she does not want to offend arguing that her work actually explores the confusion that many young Muslims face in contemporary western society, not least about what it means to be a ‘good’ Muslim.
Given that the offices of the publishers in London of ‘The Jewel of Medina’ have already been firebombed, it seems that some of those protesting – whether against ‘The Jewel’ or Maples – have missed the irony in that their actions are also quite ‘offensive’…!!!
Which highlights the point: whilst some are ‘offended’ by knife licking, others are ‘offended’ by paintings they dislike. In this column last Christmas, I even offered help to those ‘offended’ by Christmas lights, Eid celebrations and so on. And that was because offence is entirely subjective thus rendering it entirely un-manageable.
Is being ‘offended’ therefore legitimate enough to curb freedom of speech and expression?
In the past, free speech was seen as something that was inherently good. Because of this, restrictions and limitations on free speech were viewed as the exception rather than the rule, to be wielded carefully and only in those cases where speech might cause direct harm. In fact, legislation that affords protection against those trying to harm are rightly in place.
Yet nowadays, we seem to believe that speech and activities that ‘offend’ are in some way socially damaging and so require necessary curtailment. In an increasingly diverse society, this becomes increasingly difficult to manage, balancing one view against another. If we are therefore edging perilously closer to a situation where ‘if I don’t like what you say, you can’t say it’ becomes the rule rather than the exception, whose ‘offence’ will be given most importance?
Expanding upon the Maple ‘offence’ and the fact that pork is seen to be unclean, if vegetarians say that they are ‘offended’ by the sight of ALL meat in supermarkets because it is ‘unclean’, should we immediately oblige and remove it from the shelves? Is this the same or does it merely highlight how we treat people depending upon who they are? If so, we’re not as a society moving forward in a fair and equitable way.
Freedom of expression – including the right to offend – is therefore not just an important liberty; it is the very foundation of liberty. It is everybody’s business to ensure that no one is deprived of their right to say what they wish, even if what they say is seen as offensive by one or indeed many more.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.