Friday 2 December 2011 - Freedom to not be offended?

So the other day, November 30th, 2 million public sector workers in the UK were on strike. That day the BBC had Jeremy Clarkson as a guest on The One Show where they asked him for his opinion of the strikes/strikers. Somewhat inevitably for someone who is known to say things that will stir up controversy and offend portions of the country, he said something controversial that offended some people who were watching. Or who weren't watching but then heard about it from a friend/twitter/the tabloids.

He said that the strikers should all be taken out and shot in front of their families. How anyone took him seriously and didn't just take it as a joke (funny or unfunny) and Jeremy Clarkson being the usual oafish Jeremy Clarkson. However people took it very seriously, took massive offense; not only saying that the BBC should fire Jeremy Clarkson but that the police should charge him with incitement to violence/hatred.

The first I heard about all this was when I popped down the street in the car, I was heading to the police station to pick up my grandad's housekeys that he had dropped and which had very swiftly been handed in at the police station. Anyway, I had the radio on, tuned to BBC Radio 2 and it was their usual program for that time of day where they have a range of debates on various things. When I got in the car they were talking about the furore surrounding what Jeremy Clarkson had said. They had two people on the show, both of whom I believe were "bloggers", whatever else they were I had missed. One of them was arguing in favour of free speech and the right for Jeremey Clarkson to say what he wanted, I don't know what he actually thought of it but that irrelevant. The other woman was arguing against what he had said and argued that he should be fire and charged by the police. Yet she claimed to still be in favour of free speech.

At one point she said, "I couldn't just come on here and say what I wanted to do to Jeremy Clarkson."
The host replied, "No, feel free, say whatever you like."
"OK. I want to take him out and shoot him in front of his family. Except I don't because I'm a pacifist." At which point the guy on the other side of the debate chipped in with, "Obviously a very confused pacifist."
He started talking about how Clarkson had been using comical exaggeration to make a point of how some people felt annoyed at the whole strikes situation. Or alternatively he pointed out he had been using comic exaggeration simply because it was funny. Either way, he clearly - either in context at the time, or in context with his television persona - wasn't advocating actually shooting strikers at all and was joking. She said however that it was very violent, and it was likely to cause offence so shouldn't be allowed. When asked if she didn't agree with free speech she basically said that she agreed it with except for things like that.

It really annoys me when people claim to be for free speech but are only for it in cases where it doesn't offend them. The whole point of free speech is you are free to say whatever you want.
It doesn't work if you're only free to say some things, by definition that isn't free speech. What if half the country decides they're offended by people who use shortened forms of words? A stupid example I know, but then so is the idea of free speech for anything that doesn't offend. People who say things like that, like the woman on the radio, clearly think they should be in favour of free speech. Possibly even want to be in favour of free speech. However they aren't in fact for free speech at all, they are in favour of restricting it. It doesn't matter how they would restrict it, they are restricting it and people should be against that.

The other thing is that people seem to have this idea that they have some kind of right to not be offended. No such right exists, nor should it. Noone should be able to stop someone doing something merely because it offends them. If someone causes actual harm, then by all means stop it but if the only "harm" caused is that someone feels offended then nothing should be done. Well, perhaps not nothing. By all means, tell the person they have or are offending you. By all means, ask them to stop. By all means, let others know they offended you. But do not force them to stop, or expect nor ask anyone else to do so for you. So be offended but don't use it as a reason to stop people saying what they want. No matter how offensive it may be.

That was a bit rambly I know. I'm sure anyone reading it knows what I mean though.