TOPIC GUIDE: Offence
"Nobody has the right to not be offended"
PUBLISHED: 23 Jan 2015
AUTHOR: Justine Brian
Share this Topic Guide:
In January 2015 two gunmen shot and killed 12 staff members of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for reasons understood to be related to offence caused by their portrayal of Islamic religious figures. Although the general reaction to the events in Paris was the need to maintain free speech in the wake of terrorist attacks, a debate began about how we balance a commitment to free speech with sensitivity to causing offence or discord, and indeed whether free speech could or should be an absolute principle. Speaking after the Paris attacks, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defended the need for free speech and for society not to accept ‘offence’ as a valid reason for censorship, stating that: “…in a free society people have to be free to offend each other. There is no such thing as a right not to be offended. You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other” [Ref: Telegraph]. Others argue that offensive speech, which some might call ‘hate speech’, contributes to a climate where discrimination and violence are more likely, suggesting that: “… hatred is the gateway to discrimination, harassment and violence. It is the psychological foundation for serious, harmful criminal acts. …” [Ref: Guardian]. So is there an inherent, unresolvable conflict between free speech and offence? Can we make the case for absolute free speech without limits where: “People have the right to say what they wish, short of inciting violence, however offensive others may find it…” [Ref: Pandemonium] or does: “…our society makes a fetish of “the right to free speech” without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right” [Ref: Vice]? Is there a balance to be struck between the two, or can we only truly have free speech when we also accept that nobody has the right not to offended?
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
What are the arguments for freedom of speech, and are they still relevant today?
The Enlightenment thinker Voltaire is associated with the statement ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ [Ref: The Basics of Philosophy]. The philosopher JS Mill defended freedom of speech on the basis that it is only by allowing beliefs to be criticised that we can be justified in believing that they are true. Some argue that in today’s pluralistic societies and in an effort to be respectful to a diverse range of cultures and beliefs, we must accept the need for limits on what can be said in public discourse to protect the dignity of others, to avoid creating social antagonisms and to: “…recognise the power and impact of our words” [Ref: The Conversation]. But in the UK alone in recent years there have been calls for restrictions, bans or legal action to be taken on a wide range of things which cause offence to some, including: the outlawing of the singing of sectarian songs at football matches in Scotland [Ref: BBC News]; the cancelling of the ‘Dapper Laughs’ TV show after online outrage at the characters views [Ref: Guardian]; the removal by the Mayor of London of adverts on London buses deemed to be anti-gay [Ref: Guardian]; the banning of a song deemed to be sexist by Leeds university [Ref: NME]; and the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of people for racist [Ref: BBC News], threatening [Ref: Bristol Post], anti-Semitic [Ref: Guardian] and generally abusive tweets and comments on social media [Ref: Sky News]. These actions can be taken under a variety of different UK laws which now exists, including malicious communications, incitement to racial hatred and public disorder legislation.
Do we have a right not to be offended?
Certain things, e.g. speech, images and writings, are criminalised, it is stated, in order to protect people from physical and psychological harm, and the UK has introduced a number of new laws in recent years to deal with ‘hate speech’ [Ref: Wikipedia]. This is about more than merely not offending people, it’s argued, but a social good as ‘harms to dignity’: “…involve more than the giving of offense. They involve undermining a public good…the “implicit assurance” extended to every citizen that while his beliefs and allegiance may be criticized and rejected by some of his fellow citizens, he will nevertheless be viewed, even by his polemical opponents, as someone who has an equal right to membership in the society” [Ref: New York Times]. But opponents of increasing restrictions on free speech, in the name of preventing offence, argue that: “…it is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech…it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’” [Ref: Pandemonium]. Some suggest that if one accepts some limits to free speech on the grounds of offence, it will lead to competing demands by other groups not be offended, leading to a loss of freedom for all. The very point of freedom of speech, they argue, is to protect ‘extreme’ speech as, by definition, ‘acceptable’ or ‘mainstream’ speech needs no such protection and as such: “You do not have the right not to be offended. Feeling offended is the price one pays for living in a free, open, tolerant, often rowdy society” [Ref: spiked].
With rights come responsibilities?
Critics of the idea of absolute freedom of speech argue that speech is never really ‘free’ but has consequences and like all rights needs to be exercised with responsibility and thought to those around us, and that: “We have a civic duty not to offend others” [Ref: Huffington Post]. Speech, it is argued, is not only used to make rational arguments, but can be used to foment hatred and stigmatise minorities, reflecting existing social inequalities. Because of this: “Practical freedom of speech…is not a black-and-white issue, not just a matter of misquoting Voltaire; it is a subtly calibrated scale. It involves questions about social context, and discretion” [Ref: Independent]. But those who reject the right not to be offended ask: “Why isn’t offence ever a legitimate reason to restrict speech? Because unlike mental harm, offence occurs as a consequence of people projecting their own values and attitudes onto the lives of others. There is nothing to stop us from doing this, but it would be illiberal for the law to intervene …after all, the laws first and foremost purpose is to prevent us from harmfully interfering with one another’s liberty” [Ref: Free Speech Debate]. Moreover, a defence of free speech some argue, rightly assumes people are rational and fully capable of assessing different arguments, and making their own minds up, and therefore, the banning of ‘offensive’ things is: “…a refusal to engage with the realities of a diverse society” [Ref: Guardian]. Speaking after the attack in Paris, author Salman Rushdie, who had found himself under threat after his controversial book ‘The Satanic Verses’ was condemned by an Islamic cleric in 1989 [Ref: Wikipedia], says that: “Freedom is indivisible…You can’t slice it up otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hedbo … But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.” [Ref: Guardian].
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Jodie Ginsberg Guardian 5 August 2015
Brendan O'Neill spiked 10 September 2014
Kenan Malik Pandemonium 29 January 2014
Index on Censorship 23 December 2013
John W Whitehead Huffington Post 25 May 2011
Jess Phillips Huffington Post 26 May 2016
Medhi Hasan New Statesman 13 January 2015
Tim Wilson Guardian 20 May 2014
Archie Bland Independent 2 February 2014
Huffington Post 12 October 2012
Stanley Fish New York Times 4 June 2012
Will Self Vice 9 January 2015
Robert Simpson Free Speech Debate 8 January 2013
Stanley Fish New York Times 4 June 2012
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Brendan O'Neill spiked 12 June 2016
Will Gore Independent 26 May 2016
Mike Ghouse Huffington Post 15 January 2015
Guardian 15 January 2015
Spiegel 9 January 2015
Nick Clegg Telegraph 9 January 2015
Ed West Catholic Herald 8 January 2015
Charles Watson The Conversation 8 January 2015
John Rees Counterfire 8 January 2015
John O'Sullivan Wall Street Journal 31 October 2014
Susanna Rustin Guardian 13 June 2014
BBC News 12 May 2014
Rehema Figueiredo Guardian 16 April 2014
Christina Odone Telegraph 14 March 2014
Mike Harris Index on Censorship 6 January 2014
Flavorwire 13 October 2013
Dominique Jackson Daily Mail 12 June 2012
Helen Lewis New Statesman 3 November 2011
Nicola Clark Guardian 19 October 2011
Dietmar Hipp Spiegel 18 November 2009
Peter Tatchell Guardian 10 October 2007
Timothy Garton Ash Guardian 18 January 2007
The basics of philosophy
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
International Business Times 13 May 2016
BBC News 11 March 2016
Guardian 11 March 2016
Radio Poland 28 July 2015
RFI 5 March 2015
Vice Magazine 23 January 2015
Local.de 23 January 2015
BBC News 13 January 2015
Independent 13 January 2015
Spiegel 12 January 2015
National Post 11 January 2015
Huffington Post 11 January 2015
Telegraph 8 January 2015
Madiait.com 7 January 2015
Guardian 17 November 2014
Guardian 20 October 2014
Bristol Post 29 September 2014
El Pais 21 May 2014
Sky News 24 January 2014
Independent 27 November 2013
NME 20 September 2013
BBC News 3 August 2013
Telegraph 3 February 2013
BBC News 31 August 2012
Guardian 12 April 2012
BBC News 27 March 2012
BBC News 14 December 2011
BBC News 14 December 2011
BBC News 15 February 2007
This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.
TOPIC GUIDE MENU
Select the relevant option
Related topic guides