During my recent blogging hiatus, a couple of teacup-bound tempests blew up in which I detected a common theme. It’s a trend that can also be spotted in all sorts of debates around offensive or hateful language and behaviour, in many contexts.
First, the Guardian became embroiled in one of its periodic ding-dongs about everyday sexism and misogynistic street harassment. It began with a video which set out to turn the tables on catcalling and sexual harassment which, in my view at least, failed on every level – in its concept, its delivery and the message it conveyed. It then sparked a couple of follow-up blogs, culminating in a downright weird piece on Comment is Free by a chap called David Foster who seemed to believe that discouraging men from making unwanted and threatening sexual advances to strange women in the street would lead to the human race dying out. Or something.
In an apparently unrelated news, Jeremy Clarkson hit the headlines across the UK media after audio footage emerged of him joshing around hilariously with the hideously racist old children’s rhyme Eenie Meenie Minie Mo. In the ensuing farrago, Marina Hyde stuck out her (perhaps brass) neck and declared herself rather bored by the ritualised ding-dong between left and right over the casual, soft racism of Clarkson and his ilk, and suggested that rising to the bait merely entrenched the debate. This in turn provoked Musa Okwonga to pen one of the most brilliant blogs I’ve read this year: a weary, funny, dignified cry which nonetheless packed a punch like a handful of ballbearings in a silk stocking.
I believe in freedom of speech as a powerful guiding (if not quite absolute) political principle. I don’t think people should be censored or punished by the state for what they say or write, unless their words present a very clear and immediate danger to others. Where we create our own spaces (blogs, websites, homes, social networks, whatever) we can write our own rules and expect others to stick to them, but in shared common spaces, people should be free to cause offence.
I don’t agree with imprisoning drunken idiots who spout foul racism on public transport or who send offensive tweets to me or anyone else on the internet. I do not think it should be a criminal offence to proposition someone sexually on the street. The corollary to that – the inescapable quid pro quo – is that we all must take responsibility for our words and the impact they have on others. I think there is a rule of free human interaction which far too many people fail to grasp, and it goes like this:
None of us gets to decide how another person reacts to what we say or do.
The debates on sexual harassment sparked hundreds, if not thousands of comments that basically boiled down to (usually) men telling (mostly) women that they should be flattered if told A,B or C, that they should not be threatened or offended by behaviours X,Y or Z. The debates about Clarkson were spilling over with (usually) white people telling (mostly) black people that they should relax about racist language, it’s just a word, it doesn’t mean anything, or if Snoop Dogg says it, why shouldn’t I?
Fail. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.
I offend people, on a fairly regular basis, I know I do. I cannot write about the topics I cover without offending people from time to time with my ideas or my language. I swear a lot, including calling people cunts (note to US-based readers, where I grew up we pretty much use that word as a punctuation mark.)
As a citizen of a nominally free society, I assert and proclaim my right to offend you, and I champion and defend your right to offend me. However neither of us has the right to tell the other not to be offended.
It seems to me that if someone says “I was offended by that” there are several perfectly legitimate responses, including:
1. Oh, did it? I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.
2. Good. I fully intended to offend you.
3. Oh did it? So fucking what?
The two responses which I find extremely problematic are:
1. No it didn’t
2. You shouldn’t be offended by that.
What is the difference between the first set and the second set? It is all about ownership and control of another person. When I somehow impinge upon another person’s consciousness, I take the chance that he or she may be happy about that or unhappy about it, may react well or react badly.
If I strike up a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop I might generate a pleasant social interaction for us both, or I might totally freak the other person out. Either response is entirely legitimate. If I pass a woman in the street and say “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen” then she might be walking on air all day or she might be posting online to Everyday Sexism within the hour. Either reaction is entirely legitimate. If I use the word ‘nigger’ or ‘Paki’ in public or print, someone might hear me and think I’m cheekily poking one in the eye of political correctness or that I’m a nasty racist. Either assumption is theirs to make.
In all these examples, the other person might misunderstand my intentions, but that was the risk I took. It is crucial to understand that ‘I didn’t intend to offend you’ does not automatically lead to ‘you must therefore not be offended’ any more than ‘I didn’t intend to kill you’ does not automatically lead to ‘you must not be dead.
When I talk about the concept of privilege, I’m generally referring to a psychological process, a series of cognitions that are conditioned by one’s experience of status in the world. I think we see it really clearly here. There are few greater markers of a privileged attitude than believing one has the right to tell another how to react emotionally, how to think, how to feel.
We all have the right to be offensive. We also have the right to be offended.