'Beast' among acceptable insults

ROSEMARY MCLEOD
Last updated 09:14 16/08/2012

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Rosemary McLeod

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OPINION: Very rarely can the media use an accurate but unflattering word to describe someone and get away with it, yet nobody's protesting at Stewart Murray Wilson being called the Beast of Blenheim.

Perhaps the word is too mild for this violent sex offender so it passes under the radar of the usually vigilant offence police.

For my part I object because it makes him sound redeemable - like the Beast in the fairytale who's finally made beautiful by Beauty's love. Nobody will be falling in love with Wilson when he leaves jail, and judging by his criminal history, I doubt they ever did.

Just as there are times when freedom of speech means what it says, there are times when people don't deserve to live in the community, a reality we have difficulty accepting.

Wilson has to be released despite our knowing he's bound to offend again if he gets the chance, and what's deeply wrong about this is that new prey - I prefer that word to victim in this case - may have to be hurt before we come to our collective senses and lock him away for good.

I don't think much of this system, because the possible future victim is of more concern to me than Wilson is. He's had his fun; there's a long list of how and why; and now he should sink into well- earned oblivion.

Interestingly, we can call Wilson a beast, but we can't call anyone stupid, dishonest, rotten, a pervert, vile, or a liar, even if they are all of these. We have new, acceptable insults instead, like homophobic, sexist, racist and that weird word, heterosexist - all of which can be hissed at will as freely as you like, or stated in print.

The odd thing about this is that the new insults didn't rise up from the general public in the usual manner, but have drifted down, in a rather jerky fashion, from the offence police whose headquarters is often in universities where the real world is perused at a distance.

From the mouths of angry intellectuals these words have dripped into our awareness, and we are right to resent them, because they shut down dialogue. Once hurled, they are depth-charges killing all but the person hurling them, who can stand back with arms folded and a satisfied smirk. It must be delightful work, always being in the right, but you can carry it too far.

In Australia, Right-wing Opposition leader Tony Abbott certainly thinks so. He intends to revise hate speech law there and cut it back to where it belongs, at the point where ignorance stops and advocacy begins. He has wide support for this, including, I imagine, the Australian columnist who fell foul of it for claiming that pale-skinned people were cashing in on their Aboriginal heritage.

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That wasn't a smart thing to say, given the desperate plight of so many Aboriginals, but he had the right to say it, and to be castigated for it.

That's what freedom of speech means, and to a degree, it's what being a thinking person is about.

If we're not constantly changing our point of view, learning new ways of looking at things, realising we have been wrong - or right - we're not really alive in an intellectual sense.

I'd say the same for the offence police, who stick so rigidly to their rulebook and delight in bringing everyone else up short. To be utterly rigid is inhuman and to believe you are unfailingly right is a kind of madness.

These new words make liars of us when we can't speak frankly, and make communication a fraught business. Yet we are entitled to be wrong or bigoted by offence police standards, because we live in a free society.

It's only when we start advocating harm against a group or individual we dislike (advertising copywriters, maybe; priests, cyclists, deerstalkers) that we should be called to account, because that's taking matters beyond mere hurt feelings.

I may have hurt feelings at times, but that's no reason why people who dislike me should be forbidden to say as much. In any case, I'd rather their hostility was out in the open than hidden in some murky, malicious depths I don't know about.

History tells us that when ideas are suppressed you end up with totalitarian states and eventually tyranny.

The offence police could usefully take a break from their finger-wagging to think about that.

- The Press

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