The Once Cringeometer of Offensiveness

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Rod left an interesting comment on my blog “The bare facts”. He said:

I believe that interfering with rights and offending someone are two different things. Rights are about actions and offense is about thinking.

Sorry, Rod, but I don’t agree. Let me explain why.

Many people are talking about the freedom of speech and the so-called right to offend as if these are absolute rights without any limitations. That simply isn’t the case. There isn’t a single nation on Earth where there is total freedom of speech. Not one.

Every nation applies limits to speech. Some of these limits are set down in law, such as libel and slander, and laws against hate crime. Some are part of regulations – the censor deciding when a particular film or computer game should have an 18 certificate.

Some of the limits on the freedom of speech are applied by society. These may be things that are legal to say or do, but which are in such poor taste that we would object. It isn’t illegal to say the “n” word, but most of us just wouldn’t.

Just about every one of us has different opinions about what can be shown and what can’t.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s try a little experiment. I’d like to introduce you to the patented Once Cringeometer of Offensiveness.

It’s quite simple. On the top we have a dial. Underneath it we have a picture. Connecting them is your imagination. Sorry, didn’t I mention that this needs imagination in order to work?

dialpicture frame

If you turn the dial all the way down to zero you get the most inoffensive image in the world in the picture frame. Let’s say that it is a picture of a daisy. Aw, cute.

daisy

But if you turn the dial up, the images start to get more offensive. Let’s say that page 3 of the Sun is around 1 or 2. Around 3 or 4 we might start to get violent images. Pornography kicks in around 6 or 7. Then really nasty pornography. Then … I’ll let your imagination decide what you get at the higher end of the dial.

At some point we get to images that are legal, but age restricted. Later we get to images which are just plain illegal.

At one point on the dial do the images get too extreme for you? At what point do you stop turning the dial?

Now imagine asking everyone in the country to try the same experiment. What do you think would happen?

Yup – we would get many different results. Some people would be offended at a 2 or 3. Some would be fine all the way up to an 8. My tolerance is not the same as my wife’s or my son’s or my elderly Mum or my neighbour or … you get the picture.

We would also find that the dial isn’t linear. Some people will be offended by breast-feeding in public places, but be okay with page 3 of the Sun. And for some other people it would be the other way round. They insist on their right to breast feed but find page 3 to be demeaning.

And if you drew a graph of everyone’s results, it would look something like this:

normal distribution

It is known in statistics as a classic “normal” distribution. A small number of people at the bottom, a small number of people at the top and most of us somewhere in the middle.

Governments, society and regulators then decide what limitations to place on society in order to please the majority. Laws around libel and discrimination. The legal definition of pornography. What can be shown on pre and post watershed television. Even the packaging for cigarettes.

In other words, the definition of rights and the concept of offensiveness are inextricably linked. We are already surrounded by rules and regulations designed to protect us from what the majority of us consider to be offensive. These rules and regulations are constantly being updated as public views on morality change.

The people arguing for freedom of speech have a silly little argument that they like to wheel out. They say that it would be ridiculous to ban anything which someone might find offensive, so we should allow everything.

Excuse me? The choice isn’t “ban everything” or “ban nothing”. That is totally flawed logic. We can set the dial on our Cringeometer of Offensiveness at any point in the scale. Indeed, that is what we have been doing for millennia. There is no unlimited freedom of speech. There never has been. Pray to whatever deity or otherwise that you believe in that there never is an unlimited freedom of speech.

What democracies do is simple – we use the Cringeometer of Offensiveness to set our laws, regulations and standards. We constantly adjust our definitions of offensiveness to meet the majority view. It’s a messy process. It involves lots of argument. We have to keep changing it as fashions change.

But it more or less works.

That’s why it is hypocritical to use freedom of speech as an argument to justify publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Freedom of speech already includes limitations designed to avoid giving offence. Why should this be any different?

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