Jack Hart is Communications Manager at The Freedom Association.
At some point or another, almost everyone is offended by something. It is also true to suggest that everyone on a regular basis takes their turn at being offensive. When this happens, far too many people rush to be outraged, when in fact they should celebrate.
The ability to be offensive is fundamentally important in any free society. It means we’ve retained the ability to think for ourselves, disagree with each other’s views and be continually sceptical of the status quo.
It’s important that members of society are free to decide what they like or dislike, and more often than not, this is going to cause some sort of offence. How we choose to respond to those we consider offensive determines just how free we truly are. It is always important to remember that just because you find something offensive doesn’t mean you’re right!
Many things offend many of us. Lots of people thoroughly dislike coarse language; vegans hate the idea of using animal products; environmentalists loathe trees being cut down, and a growing number of people regularly suggest they despise Eastenders.
When you’re offended by something, you’re responsible for your response. You shouldn’t be seeking to prevent something from happening, but instead you should distance yourself from what you consider offensive. It’s relatively simple. If, for example, you find what someone says on social media offensive, block them – don’t expect someone else to intervene on your behalf.
The moment someone else, especially the state, is asked or expected to intervene, that is the very moment the battle for freedom of speech is lost. No one is entitled to have a role which involves them being a judge of what is or is not offensive.
If you’re offended by coarse language, get away from it. If the idea of using animal products to create clothing offends you, don’t purchase them. If you’re worried about the environment, go out and campaign against the degradation of forests. If the daily grind of those Eastenders living in Albert Square offends you, watch another television channel.
No one has the right not to be offended. In the same vein, no one has the right to stop someone from being offensive.
We should celebrate that, thankfully, we live in a marketplace of ideas. Generations have fought long and hard to protect, and promote, our freedom to choose our own opinions. We should be continuing that fight – not giving in.
However, in recent years, with the growth of social media, there has begun a worrying trend of people being criminalised for simply being offensive online.
Before the growth of Twitter and Facebook, Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 sat on the Statute Book relatively unknown and unused. Originally intended to deal with poison pen letters and heavy-breathing phone calls, this little known law has become life changing for a great many people.
Now there is no denying that people sometimes say horrendously offensive things on social media. But just because these comments have been made online, should these people receive criminal records?
Had these comments been made in a pub, school playground, or at a sporting event, it’s more likely they’d have been forgotten. Instead, many people, especially young people, are being left with a criminal record because someone, somewhere, considered what they said on social media to be offensive.
It’s understandably difficult to rush to the defence of people who say deeply offensive things online, but a matter of principle is at stake.
We must be free to speak up against things we don’t agree with. We must be free to criticise what we dislike. We must be free to try and persuade those who disagree with us. And, if we decide the best way to do these things is by being offensive, then so be it – that should be supported too.
Most importantly, we must know that we can be offensive and not risk getting a criminal record. Currently it is all too easy to be convicted of being “grossly offensive” online, and this needs to change.
A free country encourages its citizens to think for themselves. This freedom should enable them to decide on their own what they do and don’t like. As soon as we decide on behalf of others what they may or may not find offensive, we’re practically saying they’re too weak to live with freedom.
We’re all offended all of the time, and we don’t have a right not to be. When the time comes that we’re no longer offended, we are no longer truly free.