Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Serious Business: Freedom of speech & being offended

“It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that.' As if that gives them certain rights. It's actually nothing more... than a whine. 'I find that offensive.' It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I am offended by that.' Well, so fucking what." - Stephen Fry
 I've seen that quote appear many a time in internet discussions in response to stories of people being offended by a particular view or statement (amusingly, mostly political views, which is odd given that, by its very nature, a political view is something which is up for debate, so being offended by an opposing viewpoint seems downright bizarre), and it has always amused me, but I've always wondered 'Is he really right? Is expressing offence really nothing more than whining? What basis is there to support that argument?'.

To solve this, I decided to have my own ponder on what it really means when someone says they're offended by something, and whose fault it really is. As with any investigation of the meaning of a word, the dictionary is a good starting point. Wiktionary provides three relevant meanings for the word 'offend':

  • To hurt the feelings of; to displease; to make angry; to insult.
  • To feel or become offended, take insult.
  • To sin, transgress divine law or moral rules.
In the first, the blame is implied to be on the offender, they have hurt someone's feelings. This meaning is best summed up by the last phrase; to insult someone. Of course, you do not necessarily need to intend insult to cause insult.

Which is where the second meaning comes in. This one implies the blame is on the offended, they have become insulted, whether or not it was intentional.

The third meaning is similar to the first, but still different. Like the first, the blame is implied to be on the offender, however in this case it is not a person being offended but the written or unwritten rules of the society in question, its etiquette.

So, whose fault is it in a case of offence? This is a tricky question which, on the one hand, has the principle of Freedom of Speech proclaiming that everyone should be free to speak their mind, regardless of the offence it would cause and on the other has my classic British ideals of politeness which enshrine respect for others' sensibilities and transform 'sorry' and 'thank you' into verbal reflex actions, scattered copiously throughout any interaction.

I suppose it is easy to deal with one possible situation easily. If someone explicitly means to cause offence and does so, the situation is nothing more than one person insulting another and thus the blame clearly rests on the one doing the insulting, the one explicitly intending to cause psychological harm to another through language.

However, the waters become muddy when the offence is not intended, does the blame rest with the offender, for unknowingly upsetting the sensibilities of those around them? Or on the offended, for perhaps being too thin-skinned or unclear with their etiquette?

If we consider it the offender's fault, then they must apologise, regardless of whether they actually perceive there to be any clear offence, or indeed whether there is any logical reason to be offended. This can lead to the problem where people become so scared of offending others that it starts to hinder free and honest speech. People become wary of their wording, especially when criticising others, however logically or constructively, and ultimately are forced to resort to politician-grade dodgery in order to avoid saying anything of any real meaning, as even the most pedestrian comment would be liable to cause offence.

Conversely, though, if we consider it the offended's fault for being offended, then they must simply suck it up and carry on, no matter of the circumstances. This leads to the opposite problem to above and removes the consequences of insulting someone. Hate speech and slurs become acceptable since it is on the recipient's head to deal with it, regardless of how hurtful the statement was intended and received. That said, it cannot be ignored that this result would logically also lead to a cheapening of insults. Hate speech loses its taboo if all are free to speak it and, over time, it loses its power. But can that really be considered a justification, especially since such a cheapening would take time, during which hateful statements would still have considerable effect.

The third definition is an extension of these situations. If divine or ethical laws (or indeed state laws in places such as the UK where Freedom of Speech is not ensured) are considered to be the collective opinion of the populace, then offending one of these laws could be considered causing offence to everyone. In this situation, is it the offender's duty to then apologise to the world at large for their transgression? Or is it the populace's duty to shrug the offence off, in which case what is the point of the law in the first place?

One of my lecturers at university (indeed, the one who taught us the principals of ethical examination and is a favourite for his methods) is a staunch supporter of Freedom of Speech. One of his oft-repeated lines is that he may disagree with someone's view with every fibre of his being, but he will defend to the death their right to say it.

While I find his position admirable, my British sensibilities prevent me from truly siding with him. For a while, my position has been that while the ability to freely criticise another person is crucial to societal progress, it should be embedded in peoples' minds from a young age that undue or excessive criticism should not be tolerated. But is that truly a third option, taking the best from both sides, or just a cop-out which actually makes no concrete ruling?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Serious Business: What the existence of memes means

Firstly, here's my train of thought:
Advertisements -> Viral Advertising -> Memes -> Memetic Viruses (inc. Viral Advertising) -> Epiphany

As you can see, I was thinking about how adverts have changed since the explosion of the internet. They have become more focussed on being something that latches onto peoples' interest and follows them around until they can share it with others. In essence, the new strategy for advertising is to create a highly-potent memetic virus and load it up with your company's details.

However, that wasn't the focus of my epiphany. That would be the system through which this idea seems to work so well: the internet. From that, I realised that the way people communicate through our global data network is fundamentally different to how we communicate in real life, and the results of this can be seen everywhere you look on the net. I'll break it up so I can explain better.

Firstly, the way a person is represented in the Real and the Wired (i.e. the internet) are completely separate. In real life, people are represented by their physical form, their bodies. These bodies are a result of genetics and often don't represent well the conciousness inside them. On the internet, however, a person's representation is wholly a product of their mind and thus represents their personality (or an aspect of it) much better. The exception of course is Facebook and the like where the Real and Wired personae are one and the same.

Secondly, given the above, communication over the internet is a much more direct method of transferring data, specifically ideas. The body is still a link in the chain of communication, but it's function is diminished to simple data entry. The ideas themselves are translated directly (via the body and keyboard) to the computer where they can be transmitted to another person and translated back via a monitor and the recipient's eyes.
In the Real, communication is much more complex, with things like appearance, tone and body language changing the meaning of the message and, in computing terms, introducing noise into the signal. Of course, this much greater 'bandwidth' does allow for ideas to be passed on more completely but the capacity for miscommunication is much, much higher (ever played Chinese Whispers? Wouldn't work in a chat room would it?).

Thirdly, given both of the above, the internet provides a near-perfect platform for the transference of simple, strong ideas between many people, very rapidly. This can easily be seen in the existence of memes. If an idea as simple and meaningless as the typical internet meme can spread so quickly and infect so many people so strongly (how many times has something happened and the first thing your mind recalls is an appropriate meme?) the internet a lot more powerful and more closely connected to our own personalities than a lot of us realise.

Anyway, I hope I've made at least some sense and not just been rambling. Though I have a sneaking suspicion I've watched Lain too many times. Or not enough, I'm never sure which.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Wait, don't you already have a blog?

This is my new blog, the sister-site of Electric Sheep.
I was finding ES was getting quite cluttered with pages, what with APS and Exclusion both taking up quite a few. While Electric Sheep is dedicated to my programming exploits, this blog, as the name suggests, will be home to my ventures into writing and the creation of worlds through words rather than code. As such, Exclusion will soon be moved here and many of my past writings will also appear.

Be cautioned that many of them involve dark themes, swearing and often graphic and somewhat gratuitous violence. Sexual themes may also be touched upon, but rarely come up beyond casual conversation on the subject between characters. Stories will be marked accordingly in order for readers to avoid the themes they find distasteful.

As I have a habit of fully developing but never finishing my stories, I will include explanations and synopses for those that require them. However, many will be either expanded upon or rewritten when I feel like it, so if you particularly like a story be sure to check back occasionally.

Story Index