A right to offend?


With this topic, I appreciate that I’m stepping in where any self-respecting angel might fear to tread, but here goes.

Let’s say you’re sitting down with a friend, someone you like and whose friendship you value, andt you haven’t seen them for a while. They have some news: they’ve converted to Catholicism, having previously been of no religious persuasion. There might be surprise, but I’d guess that most people’s response wouldn’t be to make jokes about Catholicism or about religion more generally.

Another example: a friend comes out as being gay. You’re not gay yourself, but do you support your friend or make comments that he or she would find offensive?

And, where a friend experiences financial or relationship difficulties, I’d expect that most people would try to be sensitive to their friend’s position and avoid subjects that might upset him or her.

I’ve deliberately chosen examples that avoid family (who can be horribly capable of identifying vulnerabilities and knowing which buttons to press) and work situations (where expected behaviour is often prescribed by policy). In cases of friendship, most of us try to put our best foot forward and treat other people in the way in which we would like to be treated. Call it self-interest, good manners or simple human decency, it’s what we expect and what we try to deliver.

But it’s not just limited to friendship. How many of us would go up to someone in the street or on the bus and say something that we know would – or might – offend that person?

So where has the idea of the right to offend come from and why is it verging on the politically correct to subscribe to this notion? Why would we promulgate a view that it’s acceptable for some in society to say things that upset and offend individuals or social groups when we would never claim a right to say the same things to our friends or other people we encounter and we would be mortified if we spoke in error or said something that was misconstrued?

Having said all of that, I believe in free speech and freedom of expression. I can also see the merit in holding up a mirror to society for us to question values and the boundaries of what society requires and whether those values and boundaries remain appropriate. Satire has a place in that process and Shakespeare’s fools exhibit a remarkable degree of common sense in their occasionally satirical utterances.

But I’m querying whether the satirist has absolute entitlement to offend. I’m also saying that satire itself might have more boundaries than currently seem to be recognised and that perhaps a dose of compassion, understanding and old-fashioned good manners have a role to play too.

I’d be interested to hear any comments.

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