Since those three demented fools went on a rampage in Paris last week the Internet has been awash with people getting their knickers in a twist about the giving or taking of 'offence'. On the one side we have what I affectionately call the Whitehouses, adherents to the Mary Whitehouse School of Propriety, or the 'I'm offended by that' Society. Free speech must have limits, they cry. One can't give offence willy nilly. What about child pornography? What about disabilities? What about religion, hmm, hmm?
On the other side we have the Absolutists, who say free speech is the freedom to say what you want when you want to whom you want without repercussions.
I have news, kiddywinkles - you're all wrong. Free speech has limits. Always has had. And it's right that it should, but those limits are there for very good reason. Sorry to break it to you, you odious little ignorant preacher of complete codswallop @anjemchoudary, but 'thou shalt not give offence' isn't one of them.
Once upon a time, in 1919 (at just about half past three) a chap called Oliver Wendell Homes Jr gave an opinion in the case of Schenck v United States. He said:
"[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."
Ever since then, we've been using the example of an irresponsible fool in a packed theatre to explain when it is that free speech is protected, and when not. Take another look at the quote, and in particular the word 'falsely'. If you happen to be in a packed theatre and there really is a fire then you'd be fairly within the bounds of normal behaviour if you were to decide to shout about it. But if there isn't a fire, then what you're saying is false, and you deal with the consequences.
Why's that relevant here? Well, we don't have an unfettered right to free speech, so all you Absolutists out there, tough luck. Time for bed, off you go, please stop bothering me. And all you Whitehouses out there? You can fuck off as well. Why? Because any limit on free speech is there to protect from a distinct harm, and dealt with under specific legislation. You can't tell lies about someone because that's libel, and you can be rightly sued. Lies can affect people's livelihoods, their reputation, their ability to work and their relationships. Lies are bad. Naughty naughty; Oliver would waggle his finger at you. You can't wander about being racist or discriminatory either. Racism, bigotry, prejudice, it's been the scourge of society for centuries and caused misery to millions. It's morally indefensible and flies in the face of our ideals of equality and fairness. It's also illogical, and frankly that's enough to annoy me. Don't fall foul of the Race Relations Acts, kiddies, or the Disabilities Discrimination Act or a whole bucketful of other legislation.
But what you can do, what you can and should carry on doing again and again and again, as loudly and as widely as you could possibly want, is offend people. I've said this before, and I shall say it again, and again, and again - there is no right not to be offended. You can complain as much as you like that something I say has offended you, but that's your affair, not mine. Offence is taken, not given. "I'm offended!" It's a meaningless whine, a toddler's stamping of the feet.
I've used Mr Fry to illustrate this very point before, but I suffer no shame in using it again:
"It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that’, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive’. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I’m offended by that’, well so fucking what?"
You may believe in religion if you wish. Monotheistic, nontheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic or plain old deistic? Believe in the big bearded fellow suffering from a sense of humour failure? Base your moral code on a 2,500 year old book that says wearing a polyester/cotton mix shirt is the devil's work? That's fine, off you trot. Dislike the idea of man on man action? Fickle about the notion of frottage? Not a problem. Find @frankieboyle a bit much? That's your prerogative. But so is it mine to point out the madness of religion and to call you out on the idiocy of your prejudice.
Offence is healthy. Offence is necessary. Another quote, this time from Philip Pullman:
"I think there's a difference between (a) offending people for its own sake, which I don't necessarily want to do, because some people are good and decent and it would be unkind to upset them simply to indulge my own self-importance, and (b) challenging their prejudices, their preconceptions, or their comfortable assumptions. I'm very happy to do that. But we need to be on our guard when people say they're offended. No one actually has the right to go through life without being offended. Some people think they can say "such-and-such offends me" and that will stop the "offensive" words or behaviour and force the "offender" to apologise. I'm very much against that tactic. No one should be able to shut down discussion by making their feelings more important than the search for truth. If such people are offended, they should put up with it".
I'm not saying that we should offend for the sake of it; that is, as Philip Pullman says, unkind. But neither should you seek to stifle debate by the expediency of taking offence. Offence is subjective, offence is hurt feelings. It's not an impact on livelihood, it's not the suppression of a part of society, it's plain old moaning.
So stop it, stop it, stop it.