Right to offend?


Something has been bothering me about the Charlie Hebdo case.

Actually, many things have been bothering me about this sad affair, but there is one thing that has puzzled me more than anything else.

Why are people talking about a right to offend? Where did that come from?

We are hearing it all the time. From David Cameron, from Richard Dawkins, from the publishers of Charlie Hebdo. From liberal commentators who up to now have been incensed whenever a minority group has been offended. Apparently we must fight to defend our right to offend.

Really? Who says that there is such a right?

So I did the modern thing. I Googled “Right to offend”. I spent a happy couple of hours trawling through the internet, trying to find the history for this right.

How old do you think the right to offend is? A few thousand years, say back to the times of ancient Greece? Nope.

Two thousand years, to the time of Christ? Ah, no.

The signing of the Magna Carta? The Declaration of Independence? The Human  Rights Act? No, no and no.

Try less than 10 years. The right to offend is not yet a teenager. And there is a strong possibility that it is has not been born yet.

The earliest reference I can find to a right to offend comes from December 2004. In an interview the author Salman Rushdie said this:

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

There are bound to be other earlier examples, but this is the oldest I could find. And this is not yet a right. It is the opinion of one man. At what point between 2004 and 2015 did we all get together to agree that this had become a right?

Ahem. We haven’t.  Nearly every legal definition of the freedom of speech comes with limitations and responsibilities not to harm or cause offence.

I had an interesting conversation with someone on the internet who claimed that freedom of speech – and by implication the freedom to offend – was a divine right.

I was too gob-smacked to reply. Let’s unpack that one a little.

First we need to put to one side the strict interpretation of “divine right”. This comes from the divine right of kings to do pretty much whatever they wanted because they were supposedly appointed by God. Most parts of the world have got rid of that right, replacing it with rights of the individual.

Then we ought to think about the rights that have some religious grounding. And freedom of speech doesn’t quite fit into that category either. Most religious texts have laws around blasphemy and worshipping false idols.

Okay, so let’s look into history. And again we find that freedom of speech has almost always been coupled with limitations to prevent the freedom from being abused.

Does someone want to claim that we have a natural right to offend? That it comes from the environment? If so, I’d like to know why the rocks and trees and birds aren’t also giving us a counter right not to be offended. Let’s not go there.

The truth, surely, is that we either get our rights from religious beliefs or we make them up. Rights that don’t come from religion are man-made constructs.

And very useful they are too. There is absolutely nothing wrong with humans inventing rights. We invent rights to protect us from each other, to help oil the wheels of society, to protect and to make the world an all-round happy place. It is a good thing for society to invent rules and rights. It’s what we do as a species.

It follows that our rights are not set in stone. We are continually tweaking them as we change as a society.  That’s healthy.

If we want to have a right to offend, then there is no reason why we can’t have one. But we haven’t agreed that yet. People are talking about the right to offend as if it has been around for millennia. It hasn’t.

If we do want to have a right to offend, then we need to sit down and have a rational discussion about what that right should look like. Would it be an absolute right or should it have restrictions? How do we reconcile a new right to offend with laws on pornography, discrimination and race hate?

Fine. Let’s have that debate. I think we need to have it.

But we must stop talking about the right to offend as if it is set in stone. There is no such right until and unless we decide to give it to ourselves.

The hypocrisy here is that people who are using the term “right to offend” are trying to stifle the argument. They are saying that it doesn’t matter whether the cartoons of Mohammed were offensive because Charlie Hebdo have a right to offend.

In  other words, they are using the language of free speech to limit free speech.

That would be hypocritical enough if the freedom to offend was a part of the freedom of speech. It isn’t. It’s a new idea that has not yet been agreed by anyone.

Stop talking about it as if it has been around for ages. I’ve got underpants which are older than the right to offend.

I’ll let Salman Rushdie have the last word … well, almost the last word. In 2012, he said this:

There is no right in the world not to be offended. That right simply doesn’t exist. In a free society, an open society, people have strong opinions, and these opinions very often clash. In a democracy, we have to learn to deal with this. And this is true about novels, it’s true about cartoons, it’s true about all these products.

Here I think he has a point. There is no right not to be offended. I am offended by One Direction and Nigel Farrage, but that doesn’t give me any rights to attack them or say that they shouldn’t exist.

As he says “That right simply does not exist”.

But that does not imply that we have a right to offend. That right also “simply doesn’t exist.”


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