It was reported on Tuesday that the Gardai will not be pursuing their investigation into a complaint that Steven Fry had committed blasphemy on a TV show a couple of years ago, when he asked why he should respect a capricious, mean minded and stupid god who had created a world full of injustice. Someone got offended and reported him to the police. Oh my! In Jakarta, Indonesia, a Christian Governor languishes in a jail cell, accused of blasphemy when he charged that some Imams misused Koranic verses to discriminate against Christians in current election. Look at that – right wing religious chappies get offended when someone calls them out for their nonsense…..what a surprise!
It is not just outmoded and outdated blasphemy laws that are used to protect people’s feelings. Here is the UK there has been much debate about providing trigger warnings to students in particular sets of circumstance. For example, if a law lecturer is going to discuss a rape case. This comes at the same time as we see an increase in no platforming for speakers at Universities across the country. While the intentions seem rooted in creating an environment of safe spaces for minority groups it has in fact led to an erosion of free speech and a generation growing up feeling that no-one has the right to offend them. The theory is that everyone has a right to express their opinions up to the point that that expression discriminates against someone else. Sounds great in theory however one man’s poison is another man’s honey. Who does the taste test? Whose truth is it anyway?
The right not to be offended begins and ends with your right not to listen to someone else. You can’t stop someone else’s mouth, only your own ears. If this is true then do institutions and companies have the right to create safe spaces? Say what you want in public and I can choose to shut my ears but I don’t have to put up with offensive commentary outside of public spaces? Of course, if we try and silence those who offend we surely loose the opportunity to defeat their ideas through reasoned debate and argument. As political actors and citizens surely we need to be able to debate ideas in order to build a better future? How do we know our ideas are the right ideas if they are never challenged or tested through debate?
For any democracy to survive and thrive free speech is a fundamental right. And where people can speak freely people will take offence. The ying and yang of freedom if you like. You do not have a right not to be offended, however with every right comes some level of responsibility. There is a line that needs to be drawn. Personally, incitement to violence seems a sensible line, and within that context I leave you with one final thought: