A favourite whinge of the fragile reactionary is “oh, you’re just offended” or “we’re not allowed to do X because it offends people!” which is treated as if it somehow magically ends the debate and proves that anyone who is offended is wrong.
In the last few years this has been backed up by some very intelligent people (Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson) who have phrased this as some version of “there is no right to not be offended”. To a certain extent, they’re absolutely right. There is no plausible blanket right to be protected from hearing anything that might upset you. If there was such a right then nobody would have been able to argue for gay marriage, abortion, freedom of religion or any number of other things which are both important and which people get extremely upset by.
For a quick example, go on twitter and argue in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, it won’t take too long before you’ll have insults thrown at you by offended leave voters who are appalled that you have the audacity to disagree with them. The same is probably true if you argue the other way.
The thing is, I might be (probably will be) offended if you say something sexist or make a racist “joke” but the simple fact that I am offended isn’t what makes it wrong to tell it.
Communication shapes beliefs, beliefs shape actions, actions affect people.
When you focus excessively on crimes that have committed by immigrants while glossing over crimes committed by locals, you are unnecessarily reinforcing anti-immigrant beliefs. When you reinforce these beliefs you are increasing the likelihood of people taking anti-immigrant actions.
When you make a joke that relies on racial or gender stereotypes, you reinforce them. The reinforced belief that such and such race has such and such characteristics increases the number of actions which treat members of that group as if they have that characteristic.
When you refer to people on benefits as scroungers, you make it easier for the government to use them as scapegoats.
When people are treated badly it makes their lives worse, even if it’s just by making their lives harder. When people are routinely treated badly it puts an extra obstacle between them and living as well as they could. People are more likely to be routinely treated badly if common beliefs about them cause other people to treat them badly. None of this should be controversial.
The issue with people whinging about the “right to not be offended” is that they’re targeting the wrong thing. When I criticise you for being racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever it’s not just because I’m offended. It’s because you are reinforcing ways of thinking that actually make people’s lives worse. More than that, you’re reinforcing ways of thinking that make people’s lives worse for no good reason.
It’s important that we work for a society where as many people as possible can live well. Sometimes it’s necessary to offend in order to achieve this; but making other people’s lives worse for its own sake doesn’t help anyone. This is why the accusations that “the left tolerates everything except intolerance” don’t work. They’re not aimed at the right target. The point isn’t tolerance, tolerance of diverse ways of living is instrumental in ensuring that people can live well. Tolerance of hurting people is entirely unnecessary.
The next time you see someone deciding that they’re going to draw a picture of Mohammed, have a think about whether they’re really doing it for a good reason, or if it’s just to try to upset Muslims and to stir up anti-Muslim feelings. That is – is it just offensive or is it gratuitously so?
If anything I’ve written has offended you, well…
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