Right to offend
Is Niamh offensive? Does it matter?
Since I have agreed to cover the article written by Finola Meredith on the question of the right to offend in the Irish Times, I have gone backwards and forwards in my head struggling to find the right answer (as the editor will tell you it’s taken me a long time to write this!!).
When I read the article first it appeared simple to me, the right to offend is quite simply a hazard of a democratic society, but can we also allow a minority group to be targeted by the majority? I am often offended by representations of women within the media, but my only way of dealing with this is to make the most of the very right which allows offense to be caused, my freedom of speech. In fact the only way to avoid being offended in modern society is to become a recluse and live with your cats for eternity (sorry if I offended any cat owners, or cats!).
But what is offensive? How do we as society decide what gets in and what is out? As members of a minority group we know we need special protection, but at the same time we also understand the importance of our right to expression. As history tells us, minority groups cannot trust the majority to champion for their rights. We must do it ourselves, and at certain times of history our cry for equal rights may have appeared grossly offensive to the majority. Meredith’s article and this whole debate has stemmed from the now infamous Moore and Burchill media storm.
“But leaping to extreme offense over Moore’s fairly innocuous original comment, which was almost certainly not intended to be inflammatory, is both unnecessary and damaging.
In fact, it looks very much like the small-minded intolerance it purports to oppose, and it speaks of a deeply unattractive desire to vanquish and control. Besides, obsessing about the obscure niceties, or non-niceties, of language seems petty in the face of much larger iniquities.”
One important point to make here is that language is important. I constantly castigate my friends who say “that’s gay”, it is my pet peeve and I’ve gotten through to the majority of them. But when an individual gets something wrong we should engage in a measured debate rather than all out attack, which just sends everybody on the defensive. The perceived ‘witch hunt’ of Blindel and Moore has not done any group any favours. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Burchill article was absolutely vile which was more suited to the bottomless cesspits of the web rather than actually achieving publication. Would a piece that was as explicitly racist, sexist, or homophobic have made the cut? The answer is no.
But often by allowing individuals to express their opinions, society will recognise the lunacy of their beliefs, call them out on it, and by the transgressor’s very actions they will alienate themselves. This is exactly what happened to Burchill, so in a sense her vitriol has actually put the struggle against transphobia at the forefront of many people’s minds.
In the past the name of this blog would have been too offensive to ever even utter out loud, it probably still is for a lot of people. But even though we might offend others we continue to speak our minds anyway, because we understand that freedom of speech is the most inherent and pivotal aspect of our democracy.