Hat tip to David Gurteen for the link.
Been thinking about people like Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle, and “rights” concerning insult and offence generally. If you are the court jester and your audience recognizes you as such, then being offensive is not just your right, but your duty – it’s in the job description (*), and traditionally you’d be given a silly hat or costume to wear just in case the it wasn’t clear in the context that you are the jester. Different cultures have different distinguishing roles, for poets and mystics / shamans too, but the idea is the same. Limits are then simply matters of taste between you in that role and your audience; a gratuitous stream of offence without apparent wit or irony, art or craft, or any point other than to offend, wears thin pretty quickly too.
There are two sources of confusion.
One, when such jesters start to appear as spokespeople or journalists on issues – like atheism in Ricky’s case, or any topic when writing in a mainstream publication in Frankie’s case. No doubt about Ricky’s commitment, and his right to express his imperfect knowledge and opinions on his subject, but there can be a blurring between his rights of expression as an individual and rights (duties *) as the court jester.
Secondly, whilst people would normally agree no-one has a right never to be offended by anyone else, this does not however correspond to an individual human right to offend anyone else, anytime. Confusion arises when people trying to be funny when exercising their rights of expression, ironically or accidentally giving offence, also start to take advantage of increasing ease of publication via blogging / micro-blogging / youtube channels. It’s the audience that makes you the court jester. (In the same way as Breivik speaking for his perceived cause, doesn’t make him the spokesperson for an actual shared cause.) By definition the jester is in a socially controlled minority position, we can’t all adopt that role.
Not only is there no general right to offend, there is no general right to use angry violence either to perpetrate the offence (in Breivik’s case) nor in response to the offence taken (in the radical Moslem reaction to the recent YouTube offence – the point of the piece above.) Ironically I have just begun reading Joseph Anton, starting with the original fatwa against Salman Rushdie, another misappropriation of Moslem lore.
Specifically, being atheist doesn’t give anyone the right to offend a theist just because you disagree with their (apparent) position so much you think they must be mad or deluded. The right is to challenge and disagree, negotiate and debate for sure, but not to offend. Offence may be a last-resort attention-grabbing rhetorical weapon used sparingly, (more than sparingly if you are the relevant court-jester like Christopher Hitchens) but cannot be a basis for general discourse.
(*) One reason it’s a duty to offend by poking fun, is that since such behaviour is inappropriate for general and formal authoritative channels, it provides just such a channel for expression of the otherwise inexpressible. Whilst the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown.