Taking offense: The right to free speech

If people want a free society and free speech, they must defend the right to offend

Frankie Boyle - what if others find him funny?
Simon Miller
On 8 February 2013 14:51

I want to be offended. Yes, you’ve read that right. I want to be offended.

As a white, educated, English male I sit here listening to the radio, waiting to be offended. I mean, why not? Everyone seems to get offended – be they black, Asian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, gay, atheist, female, handicapped, or Liverpudlian. Have I missed anyone? Sorry to offend you if I have.

Everyone else seems to have the right to be offended. Why can’t I? I don’t seem to have the right.

Oh, I can be angry. I’m allowed to be angry about the state of the NHS, the ignorance of officialdom, the state of education, Europe, and tax, for example. But where’s my right to be offended? After all, haven’t we got free speech, or is it reserved for certain groups of people?

The problem with free speech is that you have to agree with all of it or none at all. Many like to pay lip service to free speech, but only on their terms.

Take the BNP. Now, as an individualist and a believer of free markets and a small state, that party is the antithesis of all I believe in. But, should it have its funding curtailed? Should it be banned from party electoral broadcasts (PEB)?

Of course not. Back in 1997 there were calls for the BNP to be banned from having a PEB despite qualifying as a legitimate party with the requisite candidates. In recent years, there were calls for the BBC to stop Nick Griffin from being on Question Time and now the European Parliament seeks
to stop funding to ‘far-right’ parties.

Aside from the ludicrous claim that the BNP is ‘far-right’, and the idiocy of state funding for parties in the first place, it is fundamental to free speech that the BNP is treated like any other party.That is to say, take their policies, examine them, and take them apart. Show how their policies are wrong.

By removing its legitimate rights as a legitimate political party, not only do we create the martyr clause – victimhood seemingly being the only growth industry at the moment – but far more importantly we take yet another step to the removal of free speech.

People want the BNP banned because they disagree with the party. But where does it stop? The English Defence League, Ukip, the Tories? Hell, those Liberals look a bit dodgy with their orange book lot, don’t they?

Who decides what is acceptable? Who decides on who can be offended?  As I said before, yes you have the right to be offended, but in a free society there is also the right to offend. And it is the same with the media. Be it Frankie Boyle or Gerard Scarfe.

A few year ago, Boyle resigned from Mock the Week because of a joke made at the expense of Rebecca Adlington. Now Boyle is a classic example what is allowed to cause offense by ‘right-minded people’.

The joke was deemed "humiliating" by the BBC Trust and out of an audience of around 2m, one viewer’s complaint was upheld. However, a joke about theQueen was decided by the BBC Trust to be "in bad taste" but was broadcast long after the watershed and was "within audience expectations for the show".

So one rule for Adlington another for Her Majesty - so very BBC.

Scarfe has, of course, come under fire for his cartoon on Holocaust day, but from Hogarth onwards cartoons have had a long history in tickling the funny bone or tickling the mind.

Was Scarfe’s cartoon crass? Yes. Was it funny? Unfortunately, speaking as a fan of his previous work, no. Did it provoke? Yes, but not in the way he intended.

Now, it is of course the right of Jews to be offended by the cartoon, and this very website has done many a fine piece pointing out the anti-Semitism that is creeping out of the woodwork. But, for me, I simply saw a piece of lazy work by Scarfe. It was a rehash of pieces he had done on Syria and Libya among others.

Personally I saw a bad cartoon criticising a state with the usual grotesque caricaturing that Scarfe has become famed for, from Wilson’s attempt at reaming Johnson to Thatcher’s razor-point nose.

But here’s the thing. Under free speech, he has the right to offend you. If you don’t like it, don’t buy the paper. If you don’t like to hear Boyle or Griffin (and I never thought I’d put those two in the same sentence) change channel, turn off the radio, certainly don’t vote. But don’t go about being offended because your offense could deprive someone else of learning a viewpoint or finding a joke funny.

We already have a nasty piece of thought crime in the form of Hate legislation. Now, intent doesn’t exist. In essence, even the ‘victim’ doesn’t have to complain. An observer just as to perceive that offense was given. Is this the type of laws you really want? That someone’s feelings may have been hurt?

Of course there are checks and balances on free speech – the so-called ‘fire in a crowded cinema’ ruling that protects against incitement – but giving offense is not the same as incitement.

Every time a piece of free speech is chipped away, every time someone’s offense leads to a censor, every time that someone is denied a voice, that time should be a warning to us all. Once the freedom to speak is gone, so is every other freedom.

Simon Miller is a contributing editor to The Commentator

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