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?