Right to offend?

This entry take me back to one of my favourite topics that I blog on: Civil liberties. This is a question that is being posed on forum that I browse on a fairly regular basis: “do we have the right to offend?”

To set it in context, we are not talking here about offending in the legal sense, but in the sense of saying or doing things which upset or may upset other people.

Personally I am of the opinion that we do not, but it is certainly something we should have. I cannot for the life of me remember who said it, but who ever said “without freedom to offend, the freedom of expression ceases to exist” had it spot on in my book.

The right or freedom to offend and the right or freedom to free expression are intrinsically linked and both rely on each other. Of course, we must all respect each others right to hold and express beliefs or opinions (there is, in my opinion, no obligation to respect the opinion itself).

I want to begin by looking at religion as it is an area that I feel, causes many of the disputes over freedom of expression. We are often reminded by people who follow a religion that it is their right to do so and their right to assemble together to worship and practice this religion. I have no problem with this. However, what I do have a problem with is when debating with people as to whether God exists (and debates along those lines) that I must respect their freedom of expression. Hang on a minute, what about MY Freedom of expression. I am also afforded the right to express what I believe in (which is that there is no god), though if it offends you. I’ll take an example. Before I go into this little anecdote I would like to say that this was said in Jest at the time. There was a debate between the Debating Society and Christian Union at my university and I was on the Debating society panel. The motion which we were debating was “This house believes that God is dead”. I will not bore you with the entire debate, as the definition of the motion was, in the end, very complex (as it usually is when I have any say in how the motion is to be defined!) The speaker before me spoke about hearing the word of God and how God speaks to us all. So, being the offensive debater that I am, I stand up and give what I would probably define as the most offensive five minutes I have ever produced in a debate. The vast majority of my five minute speech was based around suggesting that Christians (and in particular those who hear the voice of Jesus and God) are Schizophrenics (yes, I know there is an idea out there that there is a form of psychosis called ‘Christ Psychosis’). Most took this as it was meant: in jest (they mainly grasped that university level debating can often become very offensive, especially when controversial motions are involved). However, one or two attacked me in the floor debate for being offensive and then went on to moan about their rights to freedom of expression and religious conscience. I see this as double standards. Essentially, what I am trying to say here is that if I or anyone else wishes to be offensive about religion then that should be allowed on the condition that both sides respect the others right to freedom of expression.

I want to continue by looking at it in a political context and taking the British National Party as a case in point. The BNP are treated as a second class party officially in many ways. Some examples include the way they are not allowed to stand on the main stage when the results of elections are being announced along with the other candidates. Now, I do not agree with the views of the BNP. However, I would defend to my death their right to hold and express their views. I see the way we try and ban them as very dangerous. Essentially, we are driving them underground and this is where they can do more damage. I’m all for allowing them to express their views and add them into the political debate. In my opinion, the best way to prove their views are indeed abhorrent, repugnant and ludicrous is to demonstrate this through reasoned political debate. Simply trying to ban them on the pretence that their views are offensive and may upset some people (even if these some people are in fact the majority) is not in the sprit of a free and democratic society. You may remember the controversy surrounding the decision of the Oxford Union to invite the BNP to speak there. I was in support of that, knowing that those in the Oxford union are more then capable of debating in a sensible and reasoned manner to help demonstrate that their views are indeed repugnant.

Finally, before this turns into another essay, I will say that I also agree that these freedoms cannot be absolute and there must be some qualification to them. However, this qualification should be kept to a minimum and only where there is a strong case of protecting national security (or something to that gravity) should restrictions be placed upon it. For example, it is quite reasonable that members of the Intelligence services are bound by law not to disclose privileged information which they have come into the knowledge of during the course of their duties which could pose a threat to the safety and security of the country (however, such laws should not be used to conceal Government corruption).

I do hope that this has made sense, and please feel free to comment if you agree or disagree with what I have said above.