Does everyone have the absolute right to offend? This was the motion under the microscope at the University of Auckland Debate featuring international writers Ken Auletta, Natalie Haynes, Jaspreet Singh and Nick Davies, along with University of Auckland debaters Paul Smith and Jessica Storey.
As we walked into the venue we were asked whether or not we agreed with the motion. I queried the Auckland Writers Festival volunteer on the definition of offense - immediately putting me in the category of ‘yes, but’. Yes - but not if you’re going out of your way to hurt someone. Yes - but not if you’re inciting hatred.
I expected the debate to focus on the line between opinion and abuse that’s so frequently blurred in our social media age. But the evening delved into the far deeper (and sometimes murkier) waters of human rights, free speech, religion and the relationship between words and world peace. I have jotted down some of my notes below. I hope they’re an accurate reflection of what was said (and if they’re not, I didn’t set out to cause offense).
MC Linda Clark introduced the evening with a delightfully offensive speech about ponytails before putting the motion in context by pointing out that ‘these days, when someone gets offended, other people can end up dead.’ Linda was referring in particular to the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the recent Texas shootings at an anti-Islam exhibition - events that were referenced several times during the session.
Paul Smith, President of the University of Auckland Debating Society, opened by pointing out that free speech is the cornerstone of personal freedom and democracy. He said that offense is subjective and that people have the option of not engaging with what offends them. Referencing marriage and gender equality, he said that offense can be a catalyst for change and that the veneer of protection against offense is often used as an excuse to shut down ideas.
Jessica Storey, Education Vice President of the University of Auckland Students Association, replied by saying that language shapes the way we see the world. Misuse of offense can exclude communities and individuals, and therefore gratuitous offense is unacceptable. She pointed out that you can undermine your own arguments by being offensive - because offended, defensive people are unlikely to engage constructively with you. She closed by saying, ‘when you put a ‘but’ on the end of the motion, you acknowledge that there is no absolute right to offend.'
Next we heard from each of the panelists. Ken Auletta, New Yorker contributor, agreed that people are hurt by language, and that you have to be sensitive to that. There are trade-offs in real life - that’s why we have libel and copyright laws. He also said that who you offend matters: ‘we should be kicking up rather than kicking down.’
English comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes said ‘people’s lives can be disrupted by anything. I’m affronted by perfume, but I’m not trying to ban perfume.’ She went on to post the counter-question - ‘do people have an absolute right not to be offended?’ - before pointing out that you can’t always anticipate what people will be offended by. She told us an anecdote about writing for a television show, where she was challenged over her use of the words ‘commit suicide’. In the end they left the words in - and the one thing someone did complain about was the term ‘fancy sourdough bread’.
Indian/Canadian novelist and scientist Jaspreet Singh said that one of the most offensive events in his life was when his mother, who was translating his stories, changed one of them because it offended her. Free speech is part of our collective human heritage, and the right to offend is almost the heart of that - but all narratives need to be questioned. Hate speech has a silencing effect on marginalised people - but who is going to decide what is hate? Historically it’s the state itself that uses hate laws against the minorities it’s supposed to protect. Jaspreet said we need more speech, and better education. Human rights, when used selectively, may lead to genocidal consensus in society. If human rights are used consistently they can promote world peace.
Finally Nick Davies, UK investigative journalist, said that we live in a time when ‘there’s an industry of manufactured offense and it’s particularly vigorous on Twitter.’ He went on to say that ‘there’s a huge area of provocative, daft, offensive behaviour which we should tolerate. But I think there’s a tiny area which we should cordon off.’ Nick came up with three criteria for intolerable offensiveness:
- if it’s designed to cause pain,
- if the victim has no control over their circumstances that are being attacked,
- and if the victim is inherently vulnerable.
In summing up, Jessica conceded that it’s difficult to impose limitations around free speech. Are legal limitations the answer, and if so, who do laws protect? Public outrage allows the people who speak the loudest to decide what offense is (remember mannequin-gate?), but not everyone has the same access to free speech.
Paul finished by pointing out that we’d heard the easy answer - ‘yes, but’. He argued that gratuitous offensiveness is the cost of free speech - in other words, that Paul Henry is the price we pay for Eleanor Catton.
After the debate votes were collected from the audience to see if we’d changed our minds about the motion. While the votes were counted the guest writers took comments from the floor. Some people’s voices shook with anger as they released their questions into the darkness. Why are people of my ethnicity persecuted? Why is my religion made fun of? Why am I discriminated against? The tone of the event changed sharply, from a highly intellectual discussion to a heartfelt plea for understanding. And it became clear that Paul’s earlier point - that the offended need not engage with what offends them - doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
At last the results were announced. As it turned out, when we entered the auditorium we were split fifty / fifty on the motion- and we left in much the same way. You see, none of us were given the option of ‘yes, but’.