What we talk about when we talk about offending

The BBC tries to host a discussion of free speech but as always it phrases everything in such a fatuously empty meaningless unhelpful way that the discussion is undercut before it starts. They clearly have a mandated list of the correct words to use, and those words are the most anodyne and obfuscatory they can think of. That’s some unfree speech right there.

Am I free to offend you?

Should I deliberately share images that I know will offend others, as a statement of everyone’s freedom to do so?

What about extremists? Should their speech be banned?

“Offend” in what sense? What are we talking about? What does that even mean? Is it even possible to say anything that can’t “offend” someone somewhere?

What can “images that I know will offend others” mean? Again – it’s not possible to share an image that can’t “offend” anyone anywhere. It’s not possible to “know” what will offend whom in advance. None of this is as simple as that; none of it.

What does “extremists” mean? Extremist about what?

The questions are on their face so general that they mean nothing. If you read them through the lens of Charlie Hebdo or Raif Badawi you can attach a specific meaning to them, but the questions are supposed to be general and generalizable, which they fail at.

Questions like this have been dominating social media conversation in the days since the satirists of Charlie Hebdo were attacked and killed.

Ok, so that’s the lens. But the language remains unhelpful and misleading.

But it wasn’t long before much of the debate online became angry and polarised, and people began asking searching questions about freedom of expression in their own countries. There’s been a spate of “Je Suis” hashtags for all sorts of other free speech causes around the world, along with accusations of double standards and strong reactions from Muslims about the new edition of Charlie Hebdo.

See that? That last line? That’s a vice of the media in general, not just the BBC – saying “strong reactions from Muslims” like that. It gives the impression that there are no Muslims in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and that’s wrong, and not just wrong but harmful. Reactionary theocratic Muslims are not the only Muslims there are. There are also progressive, liberal, secular Muslims. Quit writing them out of the story.


  1. says

    What about extremists? Should their speech be banned?

    Of course not. What makes an “extremist” an “extremist” is that they are engaging in actions – usually violence – beyond words. If they’re just using words, they’re not “extremists” – they are merely “extremely annoying.”

    And that’s how it works out in the real world. The KKK has the right to be the KKK and say dumb KKK stuff and get laughed or shouted at or told they are disgusting. Stringing someone up, however, is not protected “speech” because it’s “action.” Burning a cross is a more interesting question; if some KKKhole burns a cross on their own yard, they may be violating some fire ordinances, polluting, and otherwise increasing their carbon footprint but, meh, it’s their cross and it’s their yard, and whatever. Burning a cross on my yard is trespassing, destruction of my property (my lawn!) and so forth – the “speech” part might be protected but the right to “speak” in that way on my lawn requires my permission… All this stuff seems quite simple, really, unless one is bending over backwards to be appearing to give equal time and credibility to all positions in a non-debate.

    saying “strong reactions from Muslims” like that. It gives the impression that there are no Muslims in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and that’s wrong, and not just wrong but harmful.


  2. says

    This question, like the question of body autonomy, boils down to a question of what rights someone else can claim to have over something that’s not theirs. Can someone who is “offended” claim to have some right over my magazine? Can someone who is concerned about the “soul” in cluster of cells in my body claim to have some right over my body? These concerns are usually refuted by saying “it’s none of your business what I do with my whatever unless you can show how it harms others and thereby makes it their business too.” Isn’t that always the crucial test: does it harm others?

    “Offended” is a very low bar for declaring harm to have been done. I’m “offended” by dumbass religion; can I ask the churches to please shut down? No, of course not, because my being “offended” isn’t really very harmful to me. Throughout human civilization, the idea is that for a given grievance you weigh the grievance in terms of the harm it does, before you decide whether it needs to be redressed. Religion (pace popey!) wants to put its thumb on the scale when it comes to weighing grievance by claiming that there is an invisible all-powerful being whose feelings are also hurt by whatever. So if I offend religious people’s sensibilities I’ve offended god but if their nonsense offends my sensibilities, they’ve only offended little insignificant Marcus, who can fuck off and die.

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