This is the second of a three related posts. The first was #1 There is No Right to Offend.
No-one has the right not to be offended, but any restraint on the freedom to offend is a matter of cultural tolerance and moral motivation, and categorically not any objectively-defined “right” with statutory limitation to giving offense. There is no “right” to offend. So the question becomes one of what form do valid freedoms and limitations take.
Our topic here is not dialogue, debate and argument, directly constructive in terms of its content and immediate outcomes, which proceeds on a basis of mutual respect between the participants. We’re beyond that, where intent to offend is at least part of the motivation, and as already noted in the previous post, there is a whole spectrum of possible cases.
Firstly let’s discount some meta-cases. One is simply to assert the freedom, when under threat or implied intimidation against it, but that’s a meta-reason about the freedom itself, not about any content or specific target of the expression. Similar is the case in any exchange expressing or debating disagreement, where dialogue and argument degenerates into expressions of frustration and anger, possibly even as reaction to previous expressions of abuse. Again another meta-reason to express offense, to reinforce or emphasise the disagreement or offense, but not to advance the content of the argument. I think of these cases as misdirected, or temporarily directed, offense.
And, apart from any deliberate wish to gratutiously offend or mentally hurt another individual human – harm is harm, physical or otherwise – there really is only one other class of valid cases.
In a word, satire.
Now, before satire specifically, humour generally which, like art, defies objective definition. Between sarcasm and wit, word-play and irony, the unexpected, physical slapstick and outright shock pretty much anything goes. Like offense itself, without objective definition any freedom to express humour is never going to be a statutory right with definitive limits. You know it when you experience it.
This reliance on subjective freedom to express – the freedom is from the side of the target, the butt of the joke, the restraint only from the joker – works fine in a world where we recognise the jokers for what they are, the court jester. Their free expression tolerated by an establishment and recognised by a public. In these days of ubiquitous social media and comment channels, not to mention the proliferation of media channels at all levels between the individual and mainstream broadcasters and media publications, almost everyone finds themselves concerned directly with freedom of expression and the possibility of expressing offense, deliberate or otherwise, wittily satirical or not.
So complex in any definitive objective sense, that for many – now billions of individuals – it’s easiest to assume nothing is beyond the pale, than deal with the myriad subjectivity of intent and consequence. Easier sure, but not absolute. When limits are questioned by those discomfited or offended, or those sympathising with those targetted, there can be no statutory definition – just a test of social acceptance. Think Frankie Boyle and the Sun, and testing limits to “sacred” satirical targets of humour, or invoking blasphemy laws in secular states. They hit the headlines.
There are two points. The first is that such a test cannot work if billions of individuals individually push the limits. We can’t all be the jester in the court of the establishment. It has to be an exception, at least a minority, within the population, the rest of us must exercise restraint, excepting say the concept of a “day of rage” where the point is to highlight the depth of anger. The second is that to be valid satire, as opposed to random offensive humour, the target must be the establishment. No topic is out of bounds, but the message must be targetted at the establishment, not just any population or individual with whom we have a beef, or even a deadly serious grievance. Satire, mockery, ridicule are misdirected here, justified by emphasis and provocation for sure, but not germane to resolving the content of any argument or disagreement.
Satire is for those people and media-organs recognised and the “court-jesters” of our time targetting the establishment “court” of our time. We cannot all be the court-jester at the same time – that’s anarchy. Outside these boundaries, no-holds-barred offensive humour however witty, can only be hurtful and/or provocative of a response – be that response a laugh or a violent reaction.
Charlie Hebdo knew exactly what kind of response they were provoking.
Continued in #3 Islam, We Have A Problem
[Post Note : Excellent BBC Magazine piece from Will Self.]
[Post Note : And also from Frankie Boyle.]