I feel as if the shadow of Abaddon is falling across our world. The shadow of “The Great Devourer” is killing not life, but the life force of freedom of speech.
In February of this year, a police officer wrote a citation against a preacher at the University of Texas for inveighing against certain practices and thus, offending students. Two years ago, Jake Newsome was jailed for six weeks in the UK after posting offensive comments on Facebook regarding the murder of a teacher. In sentencing, the judge said that he could “think of little that could be more upsetting or offensive.” Robert Riley was jailed too, after posting offensive comments on the same murder. Benjamin Flatters was jailed after posting comments on Twitter that were deemed to be of a “racist or anti-religious nature”. The list goes on.
Yet, as disgusting and abhorrent as I find the opinions or attention-seeking posts and tweets of these individuals, I am reminded that their actual crime was to be offensive.
The emotion of being offended is entirely subjective. It is wholly founded upon your individual beliefs, cultural background, ethnicity, upbringing, traditions, emotional sensitivity, and a whole plethora of other ideals which make up our own sense of who we are. That being the case, what is offensive to me may not be offensive to someone else, whilst something which they will take with a pinch of salt could offend me greatly. An example of this was when I was visiting the grave of my great-granddad at Ypres. He was killed during WWI. As I left the cemetery, a young guy came over to me and asked me something. I didn’t speak Flemish at the time (I do now), and so I politely asked him if he spoke English. He replied, in English, “I shouldn’t have to speak English. You are in my country so you should speak my language. If you want to speak English, go back to England.” I looked back at the grave of my great-granddad and then told the guy that no one seemed to care that my ancestor spoke English when he was helping to liberate his country. He looked at me as if I was dirt, and then walked away. While the emotional sting of his words hurt just as much as if he’d physically hit me, once I’d calmed down I realised he was an ignorant idiot and that all he’d actually done was offend me. It is impossible to protect me from being offended by his views, without me being offensive by telling him what he can or can’t say.
Being offended or insulted is a part of everyday life. We teach our children to take no notice of bullies who call them names. Watching the news is fraught with incidences and reasons to be offended or outraged. It could even be argued that going to church only to be constantly told that you are to be thrown to the devils of hellfire and eternal damnation is condescending, and yes, even insulting. However, just as insulting is the idea that someone can call upon the forces of the law to defend them against being insulted or offended, rather than taking their own advice and turning a deaf ear, turning the page, or indeed, turning off the TV.
A crucial and fundamental decision has to be made, and it is this: are we a free society, or are we not? For living in a free society is not as utopian an idea as it may at first sound. It is difficult, for in a free society, people have the right to say what they want; they have the right to argue vehemently against another’s opinion; they have the right to be rude about another’s religion or belief. Without a shadow of a doubt, people must be protected from discrimination on the grounds of their race or belief or gender or sexual orientation or anything else, but you cannot throw an all-encompassing cordon around this notion. For the moment a people, or religion, or race, group or society is declared immune from satirisation, criticism, ridicule, mockery and even contempt, then you not only deny the right to freedom of speech, but we find ourselves teetering on the brink of Orwell’s “1984”, where freedom of thought is rendered impossible.
Just as living in a free society is difficult, so the defence of freedom of speech is remorseless. For the defence of freedom of speech is to defend someone whose opinion you find abhorrent, but whose argument you recognise as nonetheless valid even though you disagree vehemently with them. An example of this is Nietzsche’s assertion that Christianity is “the one great curse” and “the one immortal blemish on mankind”. The climate in which we live today suggests that were this great philosopher, poet, composer and classical philologist to write or say such a statement now, he would find himself in court. Again, in the context of a free society that is absurd. If you believe in free speech only so long as someone does not say anything to upset you, then you do not believe in anything at all.
The right to freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of speech are values which we seek to export the whole world over, even if we have to invade someone else’s country to do it. And yet we are simultaneously being told what we can and cannot say within our own borders.
Everyone has the right to decide for themselves what offends them and what doesn’t, but no one should ever have the right not to be offended.