Freedom of speech comes at cost

Julian Morrow probably said it best. Accused of insulting all sorts of members of the community in the political satire The Chaser's War on Everything, the Aussie funnyman was once drawn to defend himself. "The inevitable corollary to freedom of speech is that there is no such thing as a general right to not be offended," he countered. "So, to be honest, perhaps too honest, if you were just offended by that sketch I'm not really sorry".

He's got a point, too. There's never been any immunity from being slagged off, after all. If we're going to embrace the virtues of freedom of speech, we'd better get used to the consequences. That is, if people are to be allowed to say what they like, the flipside is an implied consent to be offended. Can't have it both ways. Either we start growing a thicker skin or we start walking towards inevitable legislative action. That is, specific hate speech laws.

Have written about this before, albeit while looking at it from a different angle. It's just a shame the momentum keeps building. Whether it's cyber-bullying, social-media trolling or parliamentary debates, we seem to be taking offence at the drop of a hat. We take offence on behalf of people we don't even know. We take offence to comments uttered by animated TV characters. It's as if we have no say in the matter.

Some folk have even taken offence at the idea of people wearing pyjamas in public. Want a bylaw against it. A few blokes claim they've been offended by a women-only exhibition in a Lower Hutt gallery. Okay, I can understand someone disagreeing, but taking offence? Really? Same goes for the bad taste comments made by Paul Henry a year or so back. Bone-headed? Yes. Ignorant? Check. Unfunny? Indubitably. But offensive? Well, only if you really tried hard.

Then there's the calls for legislative action to curb cyber-bullying. Will it really improve anything? I mean, when we have to use laws to protect ourselves from being teased or mocked or otherwise embarrassed, it doesn't say much about our sense of resilience. Instead of learning to deflect the barbs and taunts inevitably thrown our way in life, we're learning to become more sensitive to them. Am not sure that represents progress.

The media storm over Charlotte Dawson's apparent melt-down, reportedly caused by hate messages sent to her on social media, is just another example. No-one in their right mind can condone that sort of ugly nonsense; in other countries it would be a crime. Having said that, the ill will was so transparent and blind; the intent so blatantly shallow, it's difficult to know why she opted to care. Especially when she
isn't immune to sending out poisonous missives herself.

It was the late US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who once said: "No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent". More than 50 years later, it seems we've completely forgotten what she was talking about, particularly in terms of taking offence. It's not actually mandatory. There's no shortage of irony, either. So many of us want to reserve the right to abuse and attack others; to judge them, but still scream blue murder when it happens in reverse.

True enough, Mrs Roosevelt and Morrow might make strange bedfellows but it seems to me that they're almost talking about the same thing. We all have the right to agree or disagree with an issue; to even acknowledge or ignore it, without voluntarily transforming ourselves into a victim. Yes, I know: there will be some of us who can't possibly remain unaffected, due to their circumstances. Fair enough.

But everyone else has a choice.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

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