We have the right to offend, but when should we?
Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks Angela Gilchrist looks at how we think about those we see as ‘different’.
The right to freedom of speech reached a watershed with the Je Suis Charlie march in Paris. Not only did it reveal double standards but it highlighted how easily liberty is talked about, yet how impossibly difficult to realise.
The sentiments were admirable, even moving. But as world leaders who have journalists locked up in their own countries marched under the Je Suis Charlie banner along with well-known Western leaders, some began to worry about the trickier, more complex aspects to this debate.
Does the legal rightto offend others, make it desirable, and if so, when? If you’re a person who belongs to a marginalised, often discriminated against group, such as those with disabilities, LGBT people or those who happen to be religious, you’ll know how it feels to have your particular ‘issue’ lampooned. It’s painful, and we become defensive. What many fail to understand though, is how this all too human foible remains (as indeed it must) separate to the right of free speech.
The ability to laugh at ourselves and our fellow humans can provide relief in an otherwise serious world, or give rise to unexpressed, yet critical insights. Even more importantly, a free flow of communication, satirical or otherwise; allows the public to remain informed. For these reasons and others, we cannot legalise against the notion of offence. But healthy as it might be, freedom of speech in a diverse and multicultural society is far from straightforward.
A psychological explanation as to why we sometimes relish offending others but find it harder to accept for ourselves, is found in Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory. Tajfel and Turner argued that we find our identity in groups and that we all have a tendency to believe our own group is superior to others. In this way, we create ‘out’ groups or make people who are different to ourselves, ‘other’. Some cultural psychologists believe this was originally protective. Primitive humans needed to identify hostile tribes and have a means of protecting interests as they competed for resources down the centuries.
The real challenge of freedom of speech is giving the same rights to out groups as to in groups. For example, asylum seekers are arguably an out group in our society at present, but if they became British citizens and won seats in Parliament, they would become an in group and perhaps be less easy to lampoon.
And whether we’re talking about in or out groups, freedom of speech can never be absolute. Our need for expression is curtailed by laws on hate speech, security legislation, concerns about fraudulent advertising and restrictions on defamation and slander. Most free speech pundits would agree that this is desirable. But how do we decide when mere offence becomes hate speech? At what point is parody and satire defamatory or slanderous? Some argue that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are racist and marginalise immigrant communities and Muslims in particular. Others say the cartoons address pertinent, perhaps even vital, issues that deserve of our attention.
As free as our speech might be in the West, there are – and always have been – areas of taboo. These shift over time as social norms change alongside the tides of history. Some have suggested that in this post-Holocaust era few would want to parody Jews, while Muslims seem fair game in the eyes of some. And the double-standard has not escaped the attention of moderate Muslims in favour of free speech, but also desirous of respect. Arguably then, freedom of speech is in part, socially constructed.
Here we reach the nub of things: while freedom of expression and the right to offend must remain inviolate in a democratic society, how can we decide when it is desirable? Such decisions should not be taken lightly, and should never be gratuitous. Perhaps it is only reasonable and ethical to risk offending a sector of the public if it informs opinion or highlights an issue to make a necessary point. This is not self-censorship, it is respect and tolerance for the sensibilities of those with whom we share our society. It is the responsibility that comes with freedom.
This discretion is the hallmark of a seasoned editor, in much the same way as good clinical judgment is (or should be) the preserve of an experienced clinician. The wise writer or film director will not ridicule others or use violence gratuitously, but only where it informs the plot and characters or tells us something crucial about an issue. What is appropriate in one situation may be ill-advised in another. We always need to balance the right to free expression and the public’s ‘right to know’, against the possible fall-out that will occur when a group is offended for no good reason. Arguably, those who hold the least power in our society are seen to have the least access to freedom of speech, although this is implicit and rarely articulated.
If we’re honest with ourselves, no matter how libertarian we might be, we will feel the desire to silence others on occasions, even when we know this is wrong. It can be hard to accord the right of free speech to those with whom we profoundly disagree. My mind goes back a few years to a broadcast of BBC’s ‘Question Time’ when liberals objected to an appearance of BNF President Nick Griffin. But when the programme went ahead and Griffin disgraced himself with his poor arguments, those very same critics changed their minds and applauded the decision to let him have his say.
Perhaps Griffin represented something of a twilight position – a member of a despised out group whose views are held to be repugnant by many. Yet his position as leader of a party which enjoyed a certain amount of support, earned him the right to be entertained by a public broadcaster. Thus, Griffin held something of an ‘out/in’ position that confused us.
Tolerance for the beliefs of others does not mean we have to share them. It simply means that we understand that certain ideas are meaningful to others, even if we can’t possibly agree, or even despise them. Many make the mistake of believing that where ideas cannot be shared, there can be no tolerance. It is true that some ideas will be offensive, others plain ignorant. In these cases, all that we will be able to respect is the individual right to free expression – that is indeed difficult, but it is surely enough.