Editorial: Keep it seemly

Last updated 08:14 09/11/2012

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It isn't the funniest thing Rowan Atkinson ever said. But we find ourselves hoping it will be among the best-remembered.

"The clear problem with the outlawing of insults is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult. Ridicule is easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view can be interpreted as insult."

Atkinson was speaking out against a British law under which people can be prosecuted for using insulting language.

The sky hasn't exactly fallen as a result, but Atkinson and other campaigners are able to point to some prosecutions which suggest that the result has sometimes reflected less sense than sensibility, to the extent that free speech has suffered.

It has reached the stage where a man was arrested for saying to a mounted policeman: "Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?" Presumably the insulted party here was deemed to be the gay community rather than the horse.

One street preacher was convicted for displaying a sign that said homosexual conduct was immoral, while a pensioner who put a small sign in his window saying religions are "fairy stories for adults" was threatened with arrest.

Not many of us like to be hectored, let alone abused. But the law shouldn't necessarily stampede to provide us with comfort.

Apart from anything else, it's a bit rich to have lawmakers cracking down on abusiveness. Unless the British Parliament is different from New Zealand's, this law was passed in a forum where the widespread practice of the calculated insult has long been part of accepted political weaponry.

Atkinson was ideally placed to mount the attack because of one of his best early-career TV clips, as a police boss criticising an officer for lodging a raft of spurious prosecutions against a black neighbour. These included walking in a loud shirt through a built-up area at night, urinating in a public place (a washroom) and "looking at me in a funny way".

The reformists say the best way to increase a society's resistance to insulting or offensive speech is to allow more of it. It's possible to lurch too far in that direction, too. And just as it's wrong to inconsistently vilify the insult, it's not a good idea to sanctify it.

If you disagree, feel free to abuse us. Just try not to be a prat about it.

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- The Marlborough Express

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