There Is No “Right To Offend”

Humanist declarations, and UN Human Rights declarations include the double-negative form of words:

“No-one has the right not to be offended.”

And often in debate, or other free one-way expression of opinion, people express the sentiment “offense is taken not given”, “why should I care if you’re offended” – usually in less polite “fuck you” or “spin on it” terms such as used in one of the cartoon responses “giving the finger” to the CharlieHebdo massacre.

Of course these are debates and contexts where we’re already far from considerations of “being polite” – we have serious disagreement, rejection and downright condemnation of positions and actions – in which, under the mantra of the “right to free speech”, we may already feel the need to be …

“rude and offensive and vulgar and obscene (and blasphemous)”

… in anybody’s language. That is, the giving of offense is deliberate, but it nevertheless comes in a wide range of varieties:

  • Gratuitously intended with little if any thought to any (positive) aims beyond the offense.
  • Gratuitous in the immediate (tactical) context, but with higher (strategic) aims.
  • Strategically intended and delivered with satire, irony and/or other form of humour.
  • Strategically incidental but delivered with humour.
  • And so on …

Permitted (tolerated / allowed by the cultural context) rather than framed as an objective right in law. Limited only by restraint from the giver rather than legal protection for the taker. Restrained by a virtuous duty of care only, but not by blasphemy law (say) or intimidation.

In freedom of expression, there is no unqualified, blanket Right to Offend.

Whatever offense is permitted it cannot be defined as a right in objective terms from the subjective perspective of the offended party because in reality the effect and intent are also on a rather grey scale from the giver’s perspective. So the issue we have is that we have a doubly-subjective and therefore problematic definition of any limitations on the right to offend, so it is certainly snappier to think of it as an unqualified right. But it’s not.

Next installments:

#2 The Court Jester – contexts where permission to offend under freedoms of press, expression and speech demand (offensive) satire and ridicule beyond virtuous restraint.

#3 Islam, We Have a Problem – representatives of Islam address Islamist extremism – terrorist barbarity – done in their name in response to “blasphemous” ridicule or any other grievance.

[Hat tip to Ben and Sam for inspiration to now publish what had been long-standing drafts. Further explicit links and references in future installments.]

[Post Note: and a final round up of #1, #2 and #3 here.]


Also published on Medium.

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