The Right to Offend (and to be Offended)

A lot of things have happened since I last updated this blog. Some of them had a direct impact on me, but the vast majority did not. However, through the power of modern media, I found myself getting caught up in things which did not involve me at all. I began to develop opinions on events that were happening on the other side of the world and – surprise, surprise – so did millions of others.Untitled-1

Of course, when something attracts so much attention, it’s also going to attract different viewpoints. Just as a book or a film will have a mixture of good and bad reviews, an event large enough to be spoken about across the globe will also evoke differing opinions. And, as always, some of those opinions could be found offensive.

The first story I found myself getting caught up in was that of a Yale associate’s comments on Halloween costumes. To give a brief summary of what happened: an email was sent out at Yale university about potentially offensive Halloween costumes, particularly ones that could be considered as forms of cultural appropriation. Erika Christakis, a college master, then responded to the email, asking “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” This caused outrage amongst some students. A video soon emerged (which appears to have since been taken down, but here is a transcript) of a group of students screaming at Nicolas Christakis, Erika’s husband. During the exchange, Nicolas tried to appeal to them, asking “So who gets to decide what’s offensive? Who gets to decide guys?” One student immediately replied: “When it’s offensive to me!”

Here lies the problem: we are all offended by different things. To give a very basic example – I, as a 5’3 woman, sometimes receive comments on my height. Most of the time, I am not offended by these comments. However, somebody else in my position might feel incredibly hurt. So what do we do? How do we punish the offender? Can we?

Well, to put it simply, no, we can’t. At least, not in places where people have the freedom of speech. Whilst everyone is well within their right to feel offended by something, we are also free to cause offense.

Interestingly enough, just a matter of days later, another incident happened which got me thinking about this same subject. An 87 year old woman was imprisoned for denying the holocaust. Now, what I am about to say will offend some people, but hopefully (after I explain myself) you’ll be able to see why we must learn to be offended… I do not think she should have been sent to prison. Shocking, right? But please, hear me out: I think that this woman, Ursula Haverbeck, said and did some absolutely atrocious things. What she said was incorrect, offensive and downright evil. BUT, I still believe she had the right to say it because, as a human being, she has the right to free speech. In the UK, it wouldn’t have been illegal.

Now, obviously we have to draw the line somewhere. Since the Paris attacks on the 13th November, I have witnessed a disturbing amount of racism, both in person and online. I have been disgusted by what I have seen and heard. One instance of such racism made the news when a woman was arrested for banning Muslims from her beauty practice. Like Haverbeck, this offender, April Major, had essentially committed the crime of offending people. However, I agree with this charge because Major was inciting hate against a religious group. Haverbeck did not explicitly target one group (as far as I know), but Major did.

Can you see where the difference lies? Simply being offended is not enough to make the offender a criminal.

Now, at this point, it would be very easy for people to say that I might not understand how it feels to be offended in such a way, as I have not had the same experiences as anyone else. Maybe that’s correct. But I’m trying to be objective here. I believe in a person’s right to freedom of speech, but I also believe that this should not equal freedom from the consequences of those words.

Let’s go back to Haverbeck for a moment. Now I was not affected by the holocaust, but I am offended on behalf of all those who were (and still are). With regards to Major, I am not a Muslim, but reading the things she wrote made me feel angry and hurt. And even though I disagree with their stance, I can still understand why some of the students at Yale feel offended by the email that was sent out – but I also stand by my right to agree with Nicolas and Erika Christakis. I am offended by all three of these things, but I believe that only one of them is a crime.

I believe in the right to free speech, even when it offends people – but it has to be considered a crime if it puts those offended in danger. If you promote hate against a certain group of people, you have created a threat to those people. But anything less than that is just a matter of opinion, and sometimes we have to agree to disagree.

I say this as a queer person, who has had to listen to members of her own family mock and belittle people who identify as LGBT+. I say this as a woman, who has had sexist abuse hurled at her in the street. I say this as an ally and an egalitarian, who has witnessed, on an alarmingly regular basis, ignorant people expressing racist viewpoints. I am all these things and, even though I am offended by all these actions, I will stand by those people’s right to express themselves freely.

See, if we go around shutting up anything we find offensive, we begin to restrict ourselves. A lot of humour is offensive. A lot of political movements are offensive. Hell, I’m sure that half the books on the shelves in my room have some content that would offend at least one person. Swearing, wearing certain clothes, eating particular types of food – all these things are offensive to somebody. But, unless we want to end up in some sort of Orwellian dystopia, we have to accept that sometimes we will be offended.

So, instead of calling for people to lose their jobs or serve prison time for expressing an opinion, maybe we should step back and realise that they are just opinions. As long as nobody is being hurt, we should learn to live and let live.

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