Editorial: If you can't say something nice

Last updated 05:00 05/11/2012

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OPINION: It isn't the funniest thing Rowan Atkinson has 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, to his eternal credit, was speaking out against a British law under which, since 1986, people can be prosecuted on grounds of public order for using insulting language.

Truth to tell, the sky hasn't exactly fallen as a result.

But Atkinson and other campaigners are able to point to some prosecutions which suggest that, given the enormous scope for subjective and therefore inconsistent standards to be applied, 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 elderly street preacher was convicted for displaying a sign that said homosexual conduct was immoral, whereas a pensioner who put a small sign in his window saying religions are "fairy stories for adults" was threatened with arrest unless he removed it.

Yes, well, we live in an age where zealotry is often regarded as suspicious, perhaps even offensive, in and of itself.

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

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

Atkinson himself was ideally placed to mount the attack because of one of his best early-career TV clips, as a police boss criticising a (clearly racist) officer for lodging a raft of spurious prosecutions against a black neighbour.

These included walking in a loud shirt through a built-up area during the hours of darkness, urinating in a public place (a washroom) and "looking at me in a funny way".

Now, the comedian warned, the country was heading down that path of intolerance.

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.

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Just as it's wrong to inconsistently vilify the insult, it's not a good idea to sanctify it either. The new catchcry is to defend the right of others to be insulting and offensive, providing it's not menacing and threatening. These can also be subjective matters, of course, but the solution is surely to calibrate reactions carefully, and with fairly robust tolerances, particularly when it comes to distinguishing between actions that should be scorned, rather than rendered illegal.

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

- © Fairfax NZ News

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