‘There is no right not to be offended’: true or false?

‘There is no right not to be offended!’: It’s a popular  slogan.  At least, it must be if Google is anything to go by. I typed the phrase ‘no right not to be offended’ into ‘advanced search’ and came up with ‘about’ 1,780,000 sites.  The slogan is especially favoured by those who, rightly or wrongly,  see themselves as taking a stand for freedom of speech and expression against its enemies, and that includes  Nicholas Hytner, Philip Pullman, John Cleese, Shami Chakrabarti, Rowan Atkinson, Peter Tatchell, Ronald Dworkin, Ricky Gervais, and the late Christopher Hitchens. That’s a fairly broad range of intellectually capable individuals , and I am sure the list could be extended considerably. (I can’t say that I have checked out every single one of the websites in question.)


Even so, there is a major problem with the claim, namely that it is completely false. At least, that is how it looks to me. Moreover, it doesn’t take much of an argument to demonstrate the point. Thus: Suppose that I were approach a randomly selected passer-by and say – e.g. – ‘Oy pigface! You smell like a rat’s backside’. That would be offensive, would it not?  Alternatively, suppose that I were to deliberately offend some person by publicly insulting them on the web. It seems to me that any person whose moral sensitivities are at all normal could only deplore such behaviour. If you agree, then you are thereby recognising  that people have a right not to be treated in such ways, from which it follows, tout court, that there is a right not to be offended, – at least in cases resembling those I have just described.

Or, so I have often argued.  But then I do agree with John Stuart Mill that one should, whenever possible, test one’s ideas against those which conflict with them, so is there anyone out there who can tell me what, if anything,  is wrong with the foregoing argument? If you’re inclined to answer, please bear the following points in mind, though.

  1. My argument does not yield a carte blanche justification for censorship. If it’s right, all it demonstrates it that people have a right to not to be gratuitously offended, as in the cases described. The conclusion is perfectly consistent with the view that there are other cases in which it is perfectly OK to be offensive. A serious defence of freedom of speech and expression should determine the line which divides the two types of case. (As I see it, simply asserting the false claim that there is no right not to be offended doesn’t help.)
  2.  I tend not to be impressed by talk of ‘balancing’, as in ‘the right to free speech needs to be balanced against other considerations’.  Such talk usually overlooks the question of how the balancing is meant to be done. More often than not, it’s a cop-out rather than a real argument.
  3. The majority of those who claim that there is no right not to be offended tend to support liberal causes; causes of which most people who read this would approve,  – or so I guess.   However, this is not invariably the case. Some proponents of the claim are, quite clearly, fairly nasty. For example, some defend the ‘right’ of racists to abuse the people they hate on the grounds that their victims ‘have no right not to be offended’.

If these are murky issues, then the culprit could be the concept of offensiveness itself, or so I suspect. Is it really the appropriate concept with which to handle what is really at stake when arguments over free speech arise?




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19 Responses to ‘There is no right not to be offended’: true or false?

  • Iain says:

    My hunch is that we can separate the claim about being offended from that about knowingly acting in a way likely to cause offence.

    Let's take it as read that the latter is a duty – so I have a duty not to make egregious comments about your odour or facial resemblance to members of the family <i>Sus scrofa domesticus</i>. It's worth noting that the word "egregious" seems to me to carry a lot of weight here – and I'll come back to it.

    Now, let's imagine that I decide that you need taking down a peg or two, and set out to offend you in some way; but it so happens that I'm a bit rubbish at abuse – or maybe you're thick-skinned – and so what I say leaves you completely unmoved. "Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberries," I yell, only to be disappointed that you aren't immediately reduced to tears. (Your mother wasn't really a hamster, was she? What a <i>faux pas</i> that'd be…) Nevertheless, inasmuch as I meant to offend, I have done something I oughtn't. And the same might apply to any language we could reasonably expect to be offensive. It might be that you are unmoved by racial mockery that's directed at you – but that tells us nothing about the permissibility.

    At the same time, it's presumably possible for there to be times when people take offense unwarrantedly easily. You might say something that you think completely unexceptional, or that is true; or you might give me a gift that I interpret as a slight (Smith gives Jones an expensive set of soaps and bathroom gubbins; Jones takes that as tantamount to being told that he stinks). In these cases, or others like them, it'd be hard to say that you behaved wrongly – your intention was good, you had no intention to offend, and the jury of public opinion would agree that the person offended either misinterpreted you, or ought to be a little more thick-skinned, or is in denial about some uncomfortable truth, or whatever.

    It's in these cases that the denial of the right not to be offended comes into play, isn't it? There are people who think that the denial gives them <i>carte blanche</i> to say whatever they like – but they've missed the point if what they say is could reasonably be expected to be insulting. (In the same way, they miss the point if their defence is that it's only words, or pixels on the internet, or whatever.) But what counts here is that the insult is egregious, or deliberate. Nevertheless, this doesn't exclude the possibility that there could be times when something is said that happens to cause offence, but which is defensible, and which is said in a defensible manner. In these cases, a "right not to be offended" would translate as a duty on others not to speak of the world as they honestly see it. And I don't think there can be any such duty.

    Oh, and your father? He really did smell of elderberries. Nyah. Calm down, dear: it's only pixels on the internet.

  • Gregory Lewis says:

    Apologies if this is a *really* stupid reply, but:

    Couldn't someone in favour of the 'no right not to be offended' line just say that acts of gratuitous offense are wrong in some other way than breaking a right? If so, they aren't obliged to go from "X is a deplorable act" to "people have a right to not have X done to them". I'm guessing the sort of 'right' people who say things like this have in mind is some sort of more rarefied jurisprudential 'right', and these wouldn't 'cover' certain deplorable acts (deserting your spouse, perhaps). So when they say "you don't have a right to be offended", they are likely getting at "it would be a bad idea for the law to recognize offense as a grounds for censoring speech".

    Obviously there are all sorts of normative issues about rights, and all sorts of practical ones about offense (lots of countries outlaw things like hate speech, and it is far from clear doing so is wrong). But unless I'm missing something obvious – not unlikely – I don't think your argument will shift people who don't have a very particular take on a variety of controversial issues about rights.

  • James says:

    Is there a meaningful distinction to be made between statements made directly towards individuals ("You're an idiot") and statements that are general ("Adherents of faith X are all idiots") that can be taken personally? Could someone have a right not to be offended in the first, direct, way, but not in the second?

    • Iain says:

      This seems right: it describes the difference between a right not to be the butt of an insult, and the right not to be aware of things that one might find insulting. I can't see how the latter is a right.

  • Regina Rini says:

    Hello Alan,

    I wonder if you've overly constrained the space of normative possibilities. Specifically, you apparently argue from the claim that "any person whose moral sensitivities are at all normal could only deplore such behaviour" to the claim that"people have a right not to be treated in such ways, from which it follows, tout court, that there is a right not to be offended." But the first point – that behaviour X is deplored by morally sensitive people – needn't necessarily entail that anyone has a right against the occurrence of X.

    That would only be true if moral rights (and directly related notions, like privileges and immunities) constituted the entirety of all moral categories. But I don't see that we should assume this. It seems quite plausible to me that some acts and events may be deplored by morally sensitive people <i>without</i> involving the violations of anyone's rights. For example, imagine a person who spent hours each day fantasizing about causing violent harm to children, without ever acting upon these fantasies or communicating them in any way to anyone else. It is hard to describe this behavior as violating any rights, yet I find it deplorable, and I assume most morally sensitive people do as well.

    Deliberately (or perhaps even just knowingly) causing offense could very well be another such behaviour. If this is the case, then one could consistently deny the existence of any moral right not to be offended, and yet uphold that people who cause offense under certain circumstances are deserving of moral condemnation. This would be especially fitting for many of the free-speech absolutists you seem to have in mind here. For, if one thinks (a) that violation of freedom of speech <i>does</i> violate a moral right, whereas (b) offending another person, although sometimes deplorable, does not violate a moral right, and that (c) the sort of moral wrongness involved in giving offense is less serious than violating any moral right, then the appropriate conclusion seems to be that we should not intervene against offensive speech (although we may still maintain moral disapproval of the offense-giving person's action). By contrast, if we assumed that giving offense is wrong <i>because</i> it violates some right against being offended, we would immediately face a strong clash between the moral right to free speech and the right against offense, with problematic theoretical consequences. But, again, this only arises if we think that the wrongness of giving offense is best explained in terms of violating rights. I don't see any compelling reason to assume it must be explained in this way.

  • Lex says:

    The issue of offence and the claim that “there is no right not to be offended” seem rather topical at the moment – Twitter and Clarkson, Gervais, Minchin, Abbot etc have a lot to answer for. I think your answer to the titular question – your claim that it is “completely false” is rather problematic – more distinctions and arguments need to be made to support this claim and the analogy you use (in lieu of an argument) doesn’t really amount to much.

    First, are you talking about moral or legal rights (or perhaps we should say the normative jurisprudential questions of “the limits of the law” or what the law or legal right(s) ought to be?)?

    First, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that we all agree that morally speaking we ought not offend people. Does this necessarily mean that such behaviour should be criminalised (that it establishes a right in the state to punish people), or that people who are offended by others should have a right of legal redress?

    Second, you are perhaps right in assuming that most people would agree that randomly shouting insults at people in the street is a bad thing. However, is this due to the offence caused? Or is it perhaps more likely that the primary reason we consider such behaviour wrong is because it may, or is highly likely to be considered aggressive and cause people to fear for their personal safety? (Indeed such behaviour may constitute common law assault). Similarly, do you think that perhaps your second example may be considered wrong not, or at least not primarily, because it is offensive or insulting but because sustained behaviour solely for the purpose of abuse constitutes a form of harassment and psychological intimidation?

    We might also want to ask; if people have a right not to be offended, where does that leave the great English traditions of humour, satire and ridicule? Jokes that may be deemed offensive often serve important moral, social and political purposes. They can be catalysts for social change (e.g. Swift) they can help keep authority in check, and can serve to help emasculate tyrants (e.g. political cartoons or the Zenga Song). We might even want to go as far as to argue that some people, like Gaddafi deserve to be offended. (And of course they can be funny, because they are offensive as well)

    Questions of offence and freedom of thought, speech and expression and are indeed complex. However, as philosophers we should perhaps at least hope that there is no right not to be offended. We often deal with controversial issues and may argue for positions which some people may deem offensive. Indeed, as Socrates appreciated, the art of controversy, offence and provocation are important resources that philosophers can draw on in order to stimulate thought and debate. If such a right “not to be offended” were true it would make philosophical academic endeavour rather difficult, if not impossible – or the state enforced drinking of hemlock rather more prevalent.

    Unfortunately the current social (twitter) trend seems to be towards people claiming offence and a right not to be offended, in order to silence people with whom they disagree. And simply being offended has become a justification within itself, without recourse to further reasons and arguments. The fear of offence has also recently led to institutional and self censorship – e.g. Tim Minchin’s Christmas Song. As the great philosopher Tim Minchin said in response;

    “[Peter Fincham (head of ITV)] did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shitstirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.”

    Minchin makes a valid point. But the issue of offence and the value of free speech seems to be under threat not just from the right, but, as your post demonstrates (your comment on “hate speech”) – increasingly from the Guardian reading left. I would advise you to read the Liberty website on the issue of “Hate Speech Laws”. We should value and defend free thought, speech and expression regardless of content… that is, even if we disagree with it or it offensive…

    (I won’t bother to quote Voltaire or add the caveat “subject to Millian provisos”).

  • Alan Haworth says:

    Thank you for these comments. I’ll try to respond to them in more detail next week, when I’ve had more time to think about them. In the meantime, could I put the following point to you (and, of course, to anyone else reading this).
    Just suppose that my argument is right. (Of course, it might not be, and for some of the reasons you’ve given, but lets suppose for the moment that it is.) If it is, it follows that the statement, ‘There is no such thing as the right not to be offended’ is false. This means that any defence of the freedom of speech and expression which rests upon that claim is correspondingly flawed; and that’s an important consideration, because so many attempts to defend liberty of speech and expression do invoke that very claim.
    Even so, one couldn’t jump straight from that to an argument for censorship. It would only mean that freedom of speech and expression can’t be defended in one, currently rather popular, way. We have to look for a different argument. Now, I suggest that the main culprit here could be the concept of offensiveness, which may be too feeble to do the work so many arguments surrounding free speech seem to expect it to do.
    I have two reasons for thinking so. One is that a person’s claim to be offended can often be the subject of rational critique. For example, we may want to say of someone that he or she is too easily offended. In other cases, it may be appropriate to criticise a person for having been insufficiently shocked. (We might find ourselves wanting to protest, ‘How could you put up with that?!’) This suggests that, in those situations where censorship is an issue, arguments for its imposition must appeal to considerations other than the simple fact that such-and-such individuals are likely to be offended. That’s because the further question of whether they would be rational to take offence will also be there, demanding to be addressed.

    My second reason is that ‘offensive’ seems to be too inadequate a term to capture what is really at stake in many of those cases where free speech becomes an issue. For example, take the case of Holocaust denial. Or consider the toxic anti-semitism by which pre-war Germany became permeated in the 1920s and 30s This was fostered day after day by the popular press, not only by written word but also with help of, for example, cartoons depicting grossly caricatured Jewish figures. You only have to open a copy of Mein Kampf at random to get a flavour of what it must have been like. Should we then describe this material as ‘offensive to Jews’? You could say that the question itself is offensive. I can well appreciate that, in the febrile political atmosphere of the 1920s, German Jews must have been terrified, intimidated, cowed, panic stricken, depressed, humiliated, angry – but ‘offended’? The word is inadequate, if not completely inaccurate.

    To take another example, consider the plight of the young female undedrgraduates David Edmonds describes – Mary Warnock et.al – who were regularly groped by their tutor and just had to put up with it. Should we describe the situation within which his behaviour was regarded as tolerable, and which thereby rendere it acceptable, as ‘offensive to women’. Again, that would seem to me to be a gross underdescription. Then again, what of the poisonous racist ‘humour’ which was regularly dispensed by the late Bernard Manning. Think about the role that sort of thing can play in a country’s cultural life, and the way it was regularly excused as ‘just jokes’. Those who attended the various clubs where Manning performed were, presumably, not offended by his jokes, whereas I would guess that most people likely to read this would have been, – but it seems to me that such considerations are beside the point. (So, while I worry about the great tradition of British humour, just as Lex does, and while I greatly appreciated Tim Minchin’s witty Christmas song, I’m not sure that the situaiton is all that clear cut.)

    • Lex says:

      Hi Alan,

      Thank you for taking the time to reply to the responses to your post. This is certainly a very interesting issue. However, your reply fails to address (what I think is) the central issue – are you talking about moral rights or legal rights? Do you think the people you named at the beginning of your first post are talking about a moral right or a legal right? I would suggest (and I don’t want to speak for him – he is more than capable of defending himself) that Dworkin, at least,* is talking about legal rights (or as stipulated in my original response, the normative questions of the limits of the law, or what the legal right(s) ought to be).

      I would suggest that people (if we are talking about law and jurisprudence) have a right to be offended. However, they do not have a right NOT to be offended.

      *I should think that this also applies to a number of the other people named in the original post – e.g. Shami Chakrabarti and also Rowan Atkinson (I believe he made this claim while talking about the law on blasphemy).

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      Hello Alan,
      I think your argument is absolutely right, as are your two additional points.  There are two culprits here : not only the use of the notion of offensiveness, but also the over-use of the notion of right.
      Let us imagine that a sensitive soul proposed that he had a right not to be criticised. He, and others, could argue that being criticised excessively ( to give a  parallel to your example, "this blog post is  the most badly conceived and poorly expressed that I have ever seen : educate yourself before putting pen to paper again") is unacceptable. And he and the others would be right. 
      But this does not entail a "right"  not to be criticised, and has  little bearing either on the right of free speech. 
      But the opposing proposition that there is no right not to be criticised is pretty vacuous, and has no more bearing on the free speech debate. 

  • Dave Frame says:

    I agree with those posters who've argued that "offensive" is too broad a brush to be helpful (and I liked Regina's post – I agree that it seems a bit narrow to go from "there is a problem here" to "there must be a right involved" as though that were the only moral language available). A core part of the moral consternation I have regarding issues of "offensiveness" has to do with whether or not the person making the allegedly offensive claim is in some way impugning or undermining the moral status of other people or other moral entities – and the status of these other entities is where a lot of the action is.

    As with tennis, it's the line-balls that attract all the controversy. If someone holds the suite of beliefs that self-describing Catholics usually hold, then they are likely to be offended by Tim Minchin's Pope Song. To my way of thinking, the potentially offensive aspects of this song** are that it degrades morally significant entities, institutions or beliefs. If you really do believe that there is a God (fitting the standard Catholic description), and that his most favoured agency is the Catholic Church, the head of which occupies a special relationship with this God, then the gratuitous abuse heaped on the institution and the morally significant agent will seem offensive. This strikes me as identical to the situation in which vegans/animal rights activists get exercised about others not taking seriously the claims they make regarding the moral significance of animals. [And their degree of exertion scales with the increasing flagrancy of the offense, too – imagine what would happen if you held a pro-vivisection sausage sizzle 20 feet upwind of the animal rights activists on South Parks Road…]

    This is mostly because though individuals are not the only morally significant entities***, we can't agree on which other ones count (and in what order): people disagree regarding the moral status of "animals" or "the family" or "the Church" or "the environment" or "the excluded middle". But I don't think the core issue here is that the morally engaged individuals' own beliefs are being morally contravened, it's that the entity in question is not being accorded its "proper" moral status. [Beliefs may be the only way that people express these views about the moral status of entities, but, for instance, animal rights activists don't complain that a pro-vivisection fry-up is offensive because it contravenes *their beliefs* (they aren't that relativist about it) – they complain that the fry-up flagrantly derides and abuses *something of moral importance* (animals, and their moral status). The two are different – activists think animals, not their beliefs about animals, as being the thing that carries the moral significance.]

    If you accept this, then rights-space is probably not the place to go looking for solutions, since rights seem to work reasonably well with self-aware, contracting, quasi-rational agents, but seem less obvious as ways of dealing with the moral status of rocks, lichen, gods and heterogenous groups.

    **This is supposition, since I'm neither Catholic nor especially offended by Minchin's Pope Song (its main source of irritation to me is its beligerent and adolescent unoriginality – far inferior to his much more nuanced Christmas Song…).
    ***See Mary Midgely, Duties Concerning Islands, for instance, though I would add "human institutions" to her list.

  • sassr.s. says:

    1. The right not to be not offended is another way of saying the right to protect one's dignity.

    2. The conflict that I'm seeing here is the tension between "liberty" and "dignity" (e.g freedom of speech vs someone's dignity). I refer you to Guy Carmi's paper "DIGNITY VERSUS LIBERTY: THE TWO WESTERN CULTURES OF FREE SPEECH" at http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=guy_carmi

  • John Graham says:

    1) The verb 'to offend' seems a particularly active one (I'm thinking of a sports or military offensive) – and it is being used here in a passive form. Perhaps worth pondering.

    2) A rights discussion is a power discussion, and sometimes it's worth seeing who is saying what. Several of the people mentioned in the opening paragraph make a lot of money from playing with taboos and/or stirring controversy (I enjoy Cleese and Gervais, by the way).

    3) Perhaps, as you say, "rights" and "offence" aren't the best conceptual tools to use here. For this job, I'd reach for the "human need" for "emotional safety". You then get into context, climate, individual trauma history…

  • John Gregor says:

    As seems to be generally agreed here, the word "offence" seems to be too weak to do the job of successfully arguing that somebody should be prevented from saying something, either legally or morally.

    Regarding personal offence ("you smell", or some of the more imaginative abuse mentioned above) this really amounts to plain rudeness. I would argue that "rudeness" may be defined as saying something that is socially unacceptable. So the right that has been broken is the right to expect that others behave in a socially acceptable manner towards you. (The justification for calling this a right would perhaps involve arguments about the value of society, social contracts etc. which is rather too much to expand on here). On this argument, the offence taken at the rudeness is a by-product, or symptom of the fact that the above social behaviour right has been broken, and therefore no right to not be offended is required. Furthermore, if personal offence is taken without the social behaviour right being broken, then no rudeness would have occurred, you would be wrong to take offence, and so there would be no right not to be offended.

    In my view, other types of offence (or perhaps I should say behaviour likely to cause offence) should be dealt with using Mill's Harm Principle, in short, that the behaviour should only be stopped if it causes actual harm to someone. Thus cases where verbal abuse had the effect of causing a person fear for their safety or well being would be harmful and thus legitimately banned or prosecuted. Likewise, hate speech against a particular group of people may be deemed harmful if it is likely to cause others to cause harm to individuals in that group. The example given about anti-Jewish propaganda in the pre-war German press would be a good example of this. On the other hand, Holocaust denial, it seems to me, would not, and so should not be banned, but instead subject to open debate and examination as advocated by Mill.

    Less controversially (perhaps!) is the notion of offence caused by challenging one's religious beliefs. I use this example, since this is exactly where a great deal of offence is taken, and that offence used as a reason to stifle religious debate. However, since neither disagreeing with someone nor expressing a contrary opinion (so long as both are done respectfully using moderate language) are rude or harmful there can be no right not to be offended by them. Furthermore, the very notion of offence against a belief, or system of beliefs, or an organisation built around the system of beliefs seems to be nonsense, since they are not the type of entities that can take offence.

    I conclude that in all cases of offence, the offence is either a by-product of some other right being broken, and/or secondary to other results of the behaviour in question, such as fear of violence. In neither case is the offence itself a contravention of a right or the cause of a harm. Therefore, I submit, there is no right not to be offended.

  • Dave Frame says:

    John Gregor wrote: "the very notion of offence against a belief, or system of beliefs, or an organisation built around the system of beliefs seems to be nonsense, since they are not the type of entities that can take offence." This is kind of what I think, too. It's not obvious to me that beliefs have moral standing. Beliefs may have virtues (rationality, for instance, seems to me to have a few) but it's not so obvious they have the kinds of properties they'd need to have rights.

    Maybe an aspect of the fuss around "offensiveness" respect for people and respect for the cognitive virtues their beliefs instantiate. I respect beliefs that are rational more than I respect those that are irrational (usually). I respect the rationality of rational beliefs. Likewise, it strikes me as good form to respect the sincerity of sincerely held beliefs, since sincerity is also virtue (up to a point). So that would mean it's not respect for the belief but respect for the virtues the belief has attached to it. Belief in God may, for instance, get a tick in the sincerity column but a cross in the rationality column, which would mean it should be respected insofar as it's sincere, but not respected in the sense that it's not rational. etc. And you could add columns for the various virtues beliefs might have (evidential plausibility, for instance, or moral plausibility (however evaluated)). Everyone's matrix would be slightly different because they'd rank the different columns (virtues) in different orders and because my idea of evidential and especially moral plausibility probably doesn't correspond exactly to yours, since we have calibration issues regarding "evidential plausibility" and another set of ordering issues (at least) in the case of "moral plausibility". But those strike me as fruitful, legitimate and necessary things to argue over (ie you wouldn't ban those disagreements in the name of "offensiveness").

    John Gregor also wrote: "other types of offence (or perhaps I should say behaviour likely to cause offence) should be dealt with using Mill’s Harm Principle, in short, that the behaviour should only be stopped if it causes actual harm to someone". I'm not so sure about this – it seems to me to potentially outlaw reasonable disagreements. It's quite likely that (1) climate change denial (or alarmism) and (2) naive approaches to poverty reduction do harm.** But it doesn't strike me as legitimate to censor debate on these issues. Quite the opposite – these sorts of things are just the cases in which freedom of expression seems to me a vital right for people to have. [Even though much of what is expressed is wrong and perhaps even harmful.]

    **(1) Because mistaken interpretations of the evidence regarding climate change are likely to make us under- (or over-) respond to the problem, thereby adversely affecting human welfare. (2) For the reasons enumerated in, eg Paul Collier's Bottom Billion (or any number of other serious treatments of the problem).

  • John Gregor says:

    Dave Frame wrote: "It’s quite likely that (1) climate change denial (or alarmism) and (2) naive approaches to poverty reduction do harm." Yes, I agree, these are just the sort of things that should be best dealt with by open discussion (among other things) to get to the correct answer (if there is one), as Mill advocated.

    What I was getting at was that the Harm Principle should be used to determine whether or not someone should be banned from saying something based on whether some direct or immediate harm will be caused, for example is it likely to lead directly to someone or some group of people getting beaten up. But you are right, there are perhaps some more far-reaching and serious forms of harm that can be caused, and banning these is not effective, for the reasons you give. How to distinguish between harms to be banned and those not to be banned? There are utilitarian considerations which can be made, for example, is more harm done by reducing freedom of speech, or by avoiding a discussion which would be of benefit, or by giving greater impetus to the people whose speech has been banned ("They just want to silence us because our argument doesn't suit their interests!").

    Regarding the topic of the original post, I'm happy to leave open the question of exactly how to deal with a harm caused by speech. That a harm has been identified as the only reason to ban an act of speech on the occasions that it is banned (in my argument anyway) is enough to remove any point in there being a right not to be offended.

  • JLG says:

    I will start this post by specifying that I believe that if you have a right, then you should be able to give force to that right. To say that someone has a right to life and liberty is pointless if they can be incarcerated without trial or killed on a whim. If you are unable to say what you believe then you do not have a right to free speech. A right which you do not give action to or enforce, is at most a social expectation.

    My opinion then is that while of course you are allowed to be offended and express the fact that you are offended, there is no right to not to be offended, outside specific situations. The offence itself does not give you a right to action, and this is exactly right for reasons that I will outline.

    In response to your first post.
    Just because I agree that those statements would insult a person of normal moral sensitivities, does mean I not have to agree that therefore is a right not to be offended. Or to clarify my personal view, an unqualified right not to be offended. I think that both intention and effect should be taken into account when discussing any right not to be offended, by which I mean a right which gives rise to an action being taken due to offence given.

    To clarify, the effect that an insult has on the person, and the reason that person is insulted, should be taken into account when deciding when this right not to be offended should come into effect.

    If a person of normal moral sensitivities is insulted to such a degree by a comment, that they are genuinely appalled and distressed by it. Perhaps the victim, but not others should be prevented from hearing it or the perpetrator should be prevented from offending the victim again.

    So in the example you have given, a man shouting abuse at someone in the street. If genuine distress is given then perhaps that man should be prevented from heaping further abuse upon his victim. Similarly even if the victim, is not particularly distressed by the same slurs, but the intention of the man was to put the victim in fear of his safety, or cause him such distress as to psychologically harm him, I would find it acceptable to prevent him from being victimised.

    So I suppose the point that I would draw from this is that either there needs to be a harm caused by the insult or offence, or an intention to do so.

    This issue of course becomes more complex when we enter the realm of the internet. To say that an insult on the internet is completely analogous to an insult in real life is simplistic. For one you have the difference in the audience that can read and understand the insult and the length of time that the insult will exist. And the force of threats may, although again not always, be diminished.
    At some point if you have been using the internet for long enough you will probably of wished for the invention of the slap button on your keyboard. This is the button that allows you (and only you) to send through the internet a slap, to wake up and get the attention person for being stupid, rude, racist or deliberately trolling the discussion that you were engaged in. However this button is yet to be invented there is no way of carrying out physical element to threats or intimidation.

    If a person says something like “Lol ur gayz, i iz gonza stabz uz lmao cos i b gang* get it essay”

    You know three things; first the education system in the country which this person is in has failed or is actively failing this poor misguided person, second the argument that you are in has or is about to degenerate, and three you are in no physical danger. As annoying and disgusting as you may find the above comment, you can safely ignore it. Not only does it not represent a threat to you, but depending on the context it does not represent a serious comment that you can get offended to the extent to prevent him from writing it or others from reading it.

    The reason that this is not a comment that you should be able to prevent because of any right to be not to be offended is because it is de minims. Negligible, too small in and of its self to worry about. It causes you no harm because it in a very real sense it is meaningless. To prevent this would require one of two things. Either the prevention of internet access for the maker of the comment, which would stop the possibility that the person who wrote this would in the future be able to learn both grammar and an understanding of acceptable social behaviour. Or it would require that the person who was insulted not be allowed access to the forum or forums which would might cause them offence. Which in itself would be an unfair punishment on the victim. It would also not protect the victim completely. Living in the world means that you come across concepts that are alien to you, or may cause you offence. In this beautiful world of ours there are also a lot of unpleasant people, who may insult you. Just causing someone offence is not great enough a crime to require action. As you question later on, is offensiveness really an appropriate stake when discussing free speech, the answer in my mind is no.

    In response to your second post, the one in regard to censorship not being related to a right not to be offended, I would refer you to my opening paragraph.

    I will first address why I think that you should be able to jump from the existence of a right to be offended into a censorship discussion. Why it is unnecessary to do so, and why offensiveness might be a consideration in judging whether something should not fall under the protection of free speech, but not the only reason.

    I will then address your idea of rationale critique of offensiveness, and then quickly finish with why I see your second issue as separate from the question of offensiveness.

    As I have previously stated, it is my belief that a right should be enforceable. If you have a right that should not just be empty words. A right may have exceptions, and may conflict with other rights. But it at some level must be enforceable. The only way that you could enforce a right not to be offended is censorship. There may be cases where this is justified. For example in cases of harassment or when it is done to cause fear. But at some point to prevent yourself from being offended you must either stop the offence from being heard again or from being heard in the first place. This is why I believe that if there is a “right” not to be offended this automatically raises the question of censorship. If you have other ideas about preventing offences being given or received I would be very interested.
    But I do agree with you statement that the statement “There is no such thing as the right not to be offended” is misleading. And that any defence of freedom of speech and expression that relies wholly on this argument is misguided. If words and images really can have an effect on people, which I believe, then some words and images may be to adult for some people to come across. For example I think that the saw movies might adversely affect the development of young children, and that they are to “offensive” for them to watch. We should have some censorship of offensive material, but not just because of the offensiveness of the material. But because of the effect that the offensive material can have on people.

    Whether this is a harm principle I don’t know. Obviously these are potential harms, and it is difficult to gauge what would shock or adversely affect children. It is even harder with issues to do with religious debate, and the creation of material that is meant to be amusing.

    But merely being offended should not give rise to an ability to stop the potential or repeated offence. To do so would have a chilling effect on discussions, debates and the development of our culture. If people are offended by homosexuality, this should not prevent discussion of it. If people are offended by interracial relationships, they should not be able to prevent it. Moral panics have caused serious long term harm in the past. Personally I like to point to the rise of heroin addiction as an example of negative effects of moral panics, for an easy and fun read on this issue try this link: http://www.badscience.net/2006/11/methadone-and-heroin/ . However with any of these issues it is impossible to say what the real effect would be. However I do think that offensive speech and expression cannot be the only reason to prevent the right to free speech, even if it can be a factor to be considered.

    In relation to you first argument regarding whether censorship should be an argument against the right not to be offended I write the following.

    I agree with you that further considerations should be given than whether the “victim” is offended. I disagree that the further considerations should be whether it is rational to take offence. Simply put, potentially offensive material does need to be debated.
    Your rationale critique of offensiveness requires there to be an objective standard. The objective standard that you use is whether they would be “rational to take offence.” This begs the question. What would a rational person be offended by? Would a rational person be offended at a line of argument that questions the core of his beliefs? In my opinion probably. Would a rational person be offended by a debate advocating the change of the widely held moral views of the day?

    In relation to your second argument it is my view that the examples that you raise, barring the comedic tradition of the UK, are perhaps not properly filed under the heading of offence. Does propaganda come under the heading of offence? Is it the proper term for incitement of racial hatred? Certainly I might be offended by sexual harassment, but would I deem it merely offensive, and leave it at that? No I would class that as criminal behaviour. Something that may cause be offence, but it is not merely offensive, but also a crime. That is a sexual “offence”, a crime, where the harm and violations to the victim are clear cut.
    In relations to the jokes, I think that my above comments regarding, proper audiences and the harm that it is causing should be considered very carefully.

    I am sorry for the poor grammar, spelling and use of paragraphs. I have not proof read this and take full responsibility for any problems in the argument. Interesting question though.

  • seo says:

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  • Lennie says:

    Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so offence is in the ear of the offended. I cannot know in advance what will offend you, so how can I take steps not to offend you, without completely curtailing free speech. To take an issue of note. If I say "I disagree with gay marriage" I may offend many in the gay community. If I say "I agree with gay marriage" I may offend many in the Catholic community. We cannot have a society in which we are afraid to say anything for fear of offending someone.

    This is not to say that it is acceptable to try to offend someone; nor is it to say that it is never acceptable to try to offend someone. The issue of deliberation and the issue of the effect (i.e. offence) are entirely separate.

  • Lennie says:

    The argument at the top of this blog maintains that because it can be shown that there is one circumstance where a person might have a right to not be offended that this disproves the statement, "No one has a right to never be offended". I think a careful examination of the logic shows this is not so. Just because there is ONE circumstance does not disprove the statement. One needs to look VERY carefully at the use of negatives in the statement. Pehaps an examination of De Morgan's Laws would help.

    If one person has a right to not be offended in a single circumstance this does not disprove the statement "No one has a right to never be offended".


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