Freedom of Speech = Freedom to Offend?

Hello, hello, hello. Last night I had the rather unique experience of seeing Jimmy Carr perform his new show live at the Dunfermline Alhambra Theatre. As usual, he was absolutely hilarious and the seeing him live made the whole experience so much more entertaining, my face was literally numb from having laughed so hard by the end of the night. However, as hilarious as he was, and indeed usually is, his humour is certainly not entirely for the faint of heart or easily offended. He did in fact make quite a point about the issue of telling offensive jokes, however being Jimmy Carr, he couldn’t keep it on a serious note for too long. But the whole thing got me thinking once more about how we perceive freedom of speech and whether freedom to offend is inherently a part of that or not. If you haven’t yet seen his new show, I apologise, there may be spoilers, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.

Jimmy Carr, around the “tax evasion” incident. Image Credit – Mirror, from Getty Images

It is indeed an age old question that has gone hand in hand with the question of the right to free speech; Do we have a right to offend others? Well, the simple fact is that if we truly advocate freedom of speech, then yes we should, after all, telling people that they can’t say something – regardless of its offensiveness or lack thereof – is censorship of speech. On the other hand, there are those who would say that we should not be allowed to offend other people and that in the interests of being kind and, god help us, “politically correct”, we must be prepared to face restrictions on our freedom of speech.

It is generally argued that the reason we should be willing to forgo full freedom of speech because we are too civilised to allow for people to go about offending others, and that in order to keep everyone happy we must censor ourselves in various respects. However, the idea that we need some group of people at the “top” to tell us how we may speak and what we may and may not say is simply a show that we are not civilised enough, in their eyes at least, to use simple common sense and have the freedom to say what we want. In fact, if if we are to be as civilised as these people at the top would claim, it would be precisely that which means we can say what we like, with common sense as our guidelines.

Still, there are always likely to be people to whom common sense does not come naturally, who will take things too far and offend everyone. Then there is also the matter of the touchy lot who are either looking for attention, wanting a fight or too damned dense to take a fucking joke. So where then do we rest with them? Do people have a right to be “offended”; and by that I do not mean that people should have not the right to take offence to a remark, but as to whether or not they should have the right to “be offended” – shouting at and abusing the other person and informing them that they have no right to say what they just said and should they deign to say it again things of an unpleasant nature may occur.

Now you see, I can find some sense in the idea that there are some ideas people don’t want being floated about by certain people. For example, the banning of certain groups with “extreme” views from expressing those views. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m never too happy to see neo-Nazi groups parading through the streets, waving their slogans of ignorant, ill-thought-through hate, but regardless of how we feel about them, they are legitimate political views, and to censor them would make us no better than what they are. I am a firm believer in the idea that if an idea is profoundly wrong and stupid, that society will reject it. Whilst there tend to be a fair number of nutters around, take the EDL and SDL as examples, the majority of society knows that they are crazy, and will eventually whittle away at them and the idea will die out. We don’t need governments to tell us that these things shouldn’t be said. Society is generally quite good at working these things out.

Secondly there is the matter of people who get offended on behalf of others, which Mr. Carr highlighted quite well in his show. As most people who are in a university will know, there are many crazy societies – may favourites in Glasgow being the Marxists (in fact all the left societies in Glasgow are a touch mental) and the Feminist Society. Now before we go any further, this is not to say that I don’t agree with some of the things these groups stand for, but the groups themselves can become a touch crazy from time to time. One thing that a number of them have in common is this self-righteous sense that they have a duty to be offended on behalf of everyone and anyone. A little pointer, you fucking don’t.

It really annoys me that white, middle class, reasonably privileged students can sit about claiming that I must retract statements as they are offensive to Gay Black Jewish Chinese Whales living in Russia or some shit like that. Because the simple fact is, you have no idea what you are talking about, and as a matter of fact are probably offending those you seek to be defending by deciding you can speak for them regardless of how far removed your two respective demographics are. I have found this out for myself first hand too; I was down in England, chatting with a number of English people, you tend to find them in England, and one of them made a joke about me being Scottish, doing the accent and everything, as you do. A rather self-righteous lady then stepped in, informing the people I was with that such jokes were offensive, then having the audacity to point out to me, as a Scot and the butt of the joke, that I should be offended by this. It was quite a belittling experience, to have someone I don’t know and who has no idea what I think telling me that I ought to be offended, as if she, and Englishwoman herself, knew better than I.

But I really have to say, what annoys me so much more, is when something intended as a joke, attracts the attention of the self appointed thought police. When people are not only getting offended on behalf of a demographic they are in no way tied to, over something intended as a joke to which the teller attached no real intent of harm. The good thing is that these people are quite small in number, at least here in Scotland where we are able to have a laugh at our own expense – a fact that Jimmy Carr took immediate advantage of, and very well at that. At the end of his gig, he asked if there was anyone in the audience who was genuinely unoffended by his material, and the response was quite a fair majority of people not offended. Most people know how to take a joke. The only problem is that the people who can’t tend to find themselves in charge. To those people I say pull the stick out your arse and lighten the fuck up.

As usual, please feel free to comment, keep the debate going, etc. If you haven’t seen Jimmy Carr’s new show, it’s called “Gagging Order” and he’s touring now and I would recommend it to anyone, especially the lot needing to lighten up. Thanks for reading.

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