Is it a human right to not be offended, or should we accept it as a side effect of free speech in a democratic country? It’s a big question, and it seems to be becoming more and more pressing at the moment. I started thinking about it this week after seeing a story in the news about a radio presenter, Alex Dyke, on BBC Radio Solent. Dyke had made some controversial comments during a phone-in discussion on his show.
The remarks concerned breastfeeding in public, which Dyke said “must be stopped”, while he labelled breastfeeding “unnatural.” Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down too well, and before long an online petition to have him taken off air had gathered more than 6,000 signatures. Even though Dyke eventually apologised, it was revealed he wouldn’t be presenting his show on Friday (14th August.)
Another familiar, and very modern, feature is the role of the internet in all of this. Moral panics and collective offence at something is nothing new, but the internet has the advantage of making it far easier for people to get those opinions out there. This democratisation of outrage has levelled the playing field, to the extent that it looks like all you need is a computer, an internet connection and a grasp of how to use Twitter, and you’re away.
The huge irony here is that the offended masses often argue that it is their right to not only take offence, but to register that offence publicly. Not only that, but by doing this they are exercising free speech, seemingly ignoring the fact that those who made the original comments could claim to have been doing just that.
I’m not saying we should be negligent and act with malicious intent. What I’m saying is that if we have free speech, and a free media, then that means, inevitably, people will get offended. If we as makers and consumers of media content value truth (and we should), then we need to remember that the truth can sometimes be inconvenient for some and cause them offence, no matter our intentions. The same is true for opinions, and if we truly believe in freedom of speech, we should believe that same freedom extends to those views that are opposed to ours, no matter how objectionable we might find them.
The alternative is a narrow orthodoxy that seeks to force its beliefs on other people, all the while claiming to defend democracy. It is this contradiction that is at the heart of the UK Government’s plans for Extremism Disruption Orders (EDO’s), where the definition of an extremist is worryingly loose and fluid, and could be applied to any view that is seen as threatening to mainstream opinions.
That’s really the issue here. If your views happen to line up with what is temporarily the majority view, then you might be in favour of the Government’s measures, or of censoring the ill judged and poorly phrased comments of a radio presenter. However, consider for a moment if your views aren’t considered mainstream, or if they used to be, but then times changed, and now you find yourself on the fringes of what is regarded as acceptable opinion.
Just look at the recent court case involving the Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland, accused of discrimination for refusing to decorate a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan that went against their Christian beliefs. Despite losing the case, they garnered a lot of support for their stance, even amongst some supporters of gay marriage, who perhaps recognised what the ruling actually represents: in seeking to protect the rights of certain groups, it’s now seemingly okay to discriminate against other groups. As well as being hypocritical, It’s nothing less than legally approved discrimination against Christianity.
Such anti-Christian sentiment is also evident in the media (and especially online) following Ireland’s legalisation of gay marriage, and the recent SCOTUS decision to allow gay marriage across America. Both demonstrate a worrying trend: it isn’t enough to object to an opposing view, we must demonise, slander and ridicule them, asserting that their views threaten the unity of our societies.
However, this neglects another important truth: it is this very drive to artificially create a uniformity of beliefs and opinions, and to rule out anything the majority rules as being offensive and divisive, that is actually the most offensive and divisive thing we can do. It’s the exact opposite of what a mature democracy should be doing: it’s not free, it’s not fair and it’s certainly not democratic.