When discussing matters of free speech and offence, it is first necessary to draw a distinction between what is hate speech, and what is the expression of reasoned opinion. Hate speech is the baseless verbal manifestation of an individual’s clear and prodigious disdain for a particular group of people. While a person’s right to free speech should still allow them to articulate these sentiments, provided they do not incite violence, it is logical and understandable for some in the community to be legitimately offended by such remarks.
However, genuine hate speech must not be conflated with the expression of an opinion that a person simply does not like; and that they believe causes them ‘offence’ as a result. It is the expression of such opinions, and not the expression of clear hate speech, which currently lies at the centre of the right to free speech vs. right to not be offended debate.
It is also easy to blame millennials in this matter. The so-called ‘snowflake generation’ are frequently criticised as being the primary problem when it comes to individuals being unduly ‘offended’. However, this standpoint is anti-historical.
Throughout history, people have always taken ‘offence’ to ideas that oppose central tenets of their personal belief systems. This point was elucidated by British columnist Brendan O’Neill when he spoke in a 2015 Oxford Union debate in favour of free speech over-riding the right to not be ‘offended’.
O’Neill pointed out that John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of The Bible into English was described as “an offence” to the ecclesiastical order of the age. Percy Shelly’s 1811 pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism was also described as causing “maximum offence” at the time of its publication; leading to Shelly’s eventual banishment from Oxford. Throughout the past, members of the established order have always taken ‘offence’ to viewpoints, no matter how well reasoned, which they disagree with.
In different cases, there are obviously sides of the debate that appear to have more credibility. It is not always the case that the viewpoint branded ‘offensive’ is right or wrong. However, what is generally consistent is this feeling of ‘offence’ that such a viewpoint causes among members of the social and political hierarchy; whether it be the religious zealots of the Middle Ages or the liberal elites of today.
But is this feeling really ‘offence’? This author would be inclined to disagree. Too often individuals and groups convince themselves that a reasoned viewpoint is an offensive one, but this is purely an internalised defence mechanism. People tell themselves that they are offended, but really they are just challenged. It is ludicrous to suggest that a reasoned viewpoint, one that clearly does not constitute repulsive hate speech, can in some way offend a person. Standpoints that are formed on the basis of logic are incapable of causing true offence.
When challenged, it is also innate in human behaviour for a person to be vehemently sceptical of the opinion that is different to their own. People are naturally inclined to interpret information through the prism of what they already believe in, and are likely to ignore what they simply do not want to hear. This was demonstrated in a 1967 American study, where undergraduate students listened to a speech on the supposed positives and negatives of smoking. The speech had background static that the listeners could turn off at any time. The non-smokers generally did so when the negatives of smoking were mentioned, while those who smoked were more inclined to turn off the static when, for example, evidence refuting the link between smoking and cancer was discussed.
The current debate on the ‘offensiveness’ of some expressions of reasoned opinion displays many similarities to this aforementioned study. When faced with information that challenges them, many individuals are happy to let it be drowned out in the static of their own cries of offence. When challenged, it is far simpler, as opposed to actually evaluating the divergent opinion, for individuals to dismiss a viewpoint out of hand as ‘offensive’.
The supposed ‘offensiveness’ of opinion that is contrary to one’s own, has been internalised to a point where individuals cannot recognise that the reason they find such opinion so disdainful, and want it to be silenced, is not because it is actually offensive; but because it challenges them. It is easier for an individual to build an impregnable, politically correct, wall around their own fragile opinions and emotions, than to genuinely engage with concepts and notions outside of what is deemed ‘acceptable’ in the increasingly sensitive culture we inhabit.
This is also precisely why free speech, and the right to cause what others may deem as ‘offence’, is so important to our civilisation. As long as we, as a society, silence or censor speech that is thought to offend, we deny individuals the necessity of having their own thoughts and conceptions challenged. As John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty, “Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions”. Mill could not have been more right. It is the critique and questioning of current beliefs that allows societies to grow, develop, and flourish.
Free speech has innumerable benefits, and as long as we allow people to claim ‘offence’ when they are actually challenged, and shut down reasoned expression as a result of this, then we, as a society, will lose the privilege of hearing many potentially culture-shaping ideas.
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