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No Offence

Offending others is not a laudable goal.

Reader discretion is advised.

I’m not a fan of the argument that no-one has “the right not to be offended”, mainly because it tends to be weaponised against those we disagree with. “Offence” is one of the boogeymen of our time, like Political Correctness or Identity Politics. A concept to be frowned upon by right-wing commentators, dismissed as a symptom of the hyper-sensitive Snowflake Generation — except when it’s something that offends them.

Merely raising the possibility that someone might be offended is often taken as a green light, or even an obligation, to offend as many people as possible, just for kicks. And it also devalues the notion of “offence”. All of us are going to be offended by something at some point in our lives, and we might even ourselves call for something distasteful to be banned.

I particularly delight in pointing out the hypocrisy of free speech absolutists when they fall into this trap — it turns out that the only free speech they value is their own. However, the concepts of offence, free speech and decorum are dependent on the culture and context in which they operate, and we’re largely learning the rules as we go along. There isn’t, in most cases, a list of permitted and forbidden concepts, and so we have to make decisions as any issues of potential offence arise.

In some cases we do legislate on offence, where it “outrages public decency”, is deemed an “obscene publication”, or if it constitutes a hate crime. Some of these cases inflame the right-wing (the hate crime ones), and yet others pass by without a whisper (the ones that censor “naughty” stuff). As well as having the whole thing upside down, I doubt any supporter of this mindset could provide an example of how “not being a bigot” is harmful to society, although it probably makes life more difficult for them personally.

That may explain why some people feel that British culture is so censorious. Complaints and calls for something to be banned often make it into the media, which absorbs biases from across the political spectrum. If you want to be offended, you’ll find something. But then we need to weigh the sensationalism of the media against those cases where we feel that offence is justified. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, because as well as those taking offence, there will then be those who are offended that someone else is taking offence at something they’re not offended by, etc, etc.

At that point we need to look in more detail at things such as the harm in censoring or not censoring, whether some degree of offence can be tolerated or not, and how to manage the sensitivities of some groups and individuals with others. The matter is further complicated by the laws of the territory in which the offending incident occurs, and who has the power to censor or condone the material. Say for example, a clothing company has produced a t-shirt with a design that some are offended by. The retailer can choose whether or not to stock it. Assuming that their product doesn’t violate any local laws, their decision on whether to withdraw the product would be mainly based on the company’s ethics and the feedback from their customers. Private companies are free to choose what products they sell, again within the constraints of the legal system in which they operate. Is that a problem? No-one has the right to demand that a shop sells their product, but it undoubtedly affects their audience and sales figures if they will not.

I think these conflicts are some of the most interesting cases of tolerating or minimising offence, because they are open to more interpretation than simple proscriptions by law. A company, or organising committee, will need to make a decision based on their values, commercial concerns, and reputation. Such examples have encouraged me to look at my own ideas of what is and isn’t offensive, and to try to see it from another’s point of view.

Perhaps it would be useful to consider why somebody might take offence in the first place. I used to be completely unsympathetic to others’ reasons for taking offence — I could deal with it, so why couldn’t everyone else? Alas, there are bigger things at stake than my comfort and there are issues of restricting information for good and for bad.

The bad cases tend to be excuses to justify the ill-treatment of others. They often have an impact on those less-advantaged than white Westerners like me (but not exclusively). Sometimes the claimed offence may be a contributing factor to their disadvantage. The reaction to such outrage might take the form of forbidding the sale of a product with a “controversial” message, like a gay wedding cake or a book on sex & relationships. It could be imposed upon something that challenges powerful institutions, such as the government or the church — faux-outrage to suppress opinion and protect an institution. There have been cases of blasphemy laws used to punish the creators of certain material for “fear” of disrupting the social order — a concept not agreed upon by any members of the general public.

And then we have reasons that make good sense, in some circumstances. In many European countries, it is illegal to display Nazi insignia & paraphernalia without a good historical or artistic justification. This is because they’ve already done this one and fought a war over it. They have figured out that Nazis are bad — if only certain other Western countries would take heed. These nations have decided not only that those things are distasteful, but that they don’t want to risk a resurgence of Nazism. Banning symbols and other items associated with the Third Reich is one of the steps they have taken to ensure this.

There are times when a published work could offend minorities, either through cultural concerns, or if the product contains images & text that reinforces harmful stereotypes. This tends to be contentious for some white Westerners who might claim that such restrictions are “political correctness gone mad”, while refusing to educate themselves on the meaning of the material to the affected groups. Wait and see who then complains about being offended by Black Lives Matter or a request to check their privilege.

When such a conflict arises, there can be issues with the majority population trying to force exposure of the offending article onto the affected minority. There is little consideration of how the privileged majority would be (un)affected by the loss of whatever article is being voluntarily suppressed, but plenty of coverage of the authoritarian nature of the underprivileged group supposedly lording their rights over everyone else. It seems to be fashionable to demand that everyone else puts up with the privileged majority’s demands to impose their offensive bullshit on anyone within earshot, but it is so tiring. Why is it so difficult to be considerate of other people’s feelings?

Ultimately this becomes a matter of what society deems acceptable, rather than a decision made by a single retailer or broadcaster. Sometimes its not as simple as saying “just don’t buy it if you don’t like it” if the product sends a message that is perceived to be harmful. My own personal bugbear is gender-segregated clothing lines and toys for children, which get the kids started early with restrictive gender roles.

There are many cases where it’s down to organisations and individuals to self-censor. As stated above, there are reasons that may make censorship more likely, such as brand values or the threat of customer boycotts. Sometimes the decision to restrict is based on specific concerns. For example, I appeared in a stage production of Jubilee this year, and the decision was made to remove a reference to Myra Hindley from the script. The performance was in Manchester and this reference would not have been well-received by the audience. When asked about the decision (because that was where the Q&A headed — moaning about a single line in the whole play that was cut), the director said that although the plot is meant to be challenging, to have left that line in would have alienated the audience and missed the point. Where the anti-PC brigade want to ram objectionable material down people’s throats for fun, selectively editing material so as not to offend can be beneficial, and can actually reach a greater audience than the all-out offensive version would.

A similar, yet much larger-scale decision was made by the residents of Liverpool with regard to sale of the Sun newspaper. Since the tabloid published misleading and defamatory information about the fans affected by the Hillsborough disaster, newsagents in Liverpool have refused to stock the paper. This stand-off has continued for twenty-nine years. This is an issue that an entire city has taken to heart. They don’t want that publication anywhere near their town because of the lies and sensationalism it sold off of the backs of 96 of their fans deaths.

But sometimes commercial decisions go horribly wrong, like these absolute howlers. I have no idea what sort of marketing executives big brands are employing these days, but if shockers like these can get signed off, they maybe need some sensitivity training.

The Topman jacket with an SS symbol in its design — seriously, WTF? This is Marketing 101 level stuff — DON’T EMULATE NAZIS.
The H&M advert with a black child wearing a top saying coolest monkey in the jungle — how did they not realise the obvious connotations?
Back to Hillsborough — and Topman again: a t-shirt using symbolism that appears to mock the tragedy — I’m really hoping they didn’t stock this in their Liverpool branch.

Understandably, people were upset because these were all seen as slurs on minority groups that get quite enough stick off of society as it is without someone selling a goddamn shirt poking fun at them. They could all have been unintentional gaffes, but for goodness’ sake, you’ve got to think about these things.

Many student unions in the UK decided to stop playing Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, due to its glorification of rape culture. Many commentators, who haven’t even been in a university building for several decades, bemoaned the snowflake generation and their communist-level censorship, yet it was a decision taken by student unions as representatives of the student body. The song’s content was considered to be demeaning and harmful (and therefore offensive) and so unions took a stand against it. If anyone was so desperate to hear that song, they could just walk 50 ft to the bar next door. Hardly an authoritarian use of their powers, yet from the noises made in the right-wing press, you’d think that student unions had gone full-on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I suppose as well, seeing as we’re dealing with the hyper-rational-take-everything-to-its-logical-extreme crew, that we should address the matter of ordinary common decency and regular offence at something that’s totally inappropriate, but not technically illegal. You see, while most of us employ common sense in deciding whether an action is a good idea in the circumstances, there are some who think that because something doesn’t offend them, that nobody should be offended by it. Even worse, they think that if somebody is offended by it, they should be exposed to the offending thing as much as possible, not as a ‘cure’, but to prove a point. It’s funny how they claim to not understand how etiquette works, yet you’ll never see them wearing a gimp suit at a funeral or playing a kazoo through the two-minutes’ silence. They know. They just think that offence is an abstract concept rather than something people should have actual opinions about. And obviously those opinions must be wrong, because they don’t share them.

We feel offence, for good reasons and bad, and then we have people taking offence at the fact that other people are offended. It must be great to have so little to be passionate about, so little to really fire you up with that visceral anger. Or is it? Those who don’t ‘get’ the concept of offence, or feel that their position trumps everyone else’s, tend to cause trouble for the rest of us. It’s bad enough navigating a world where there are things to be angry about: serious injustices, discriminatory jokes and literature, imagery that reinforces stereotypes, and more. But to have your feelings of offence themselves ridiculed, is, well, offensive.

Sure, what we find offensive is shaped by our worldview and upbringing, which allows for a huge range of opinions. But as a society, we decide where to draw lines for things that have gone that little bit too far. Absolutists will say that nothing should be beyond the pale, and those looking to improve social justice may err on the side of caution and eliminate all possible sources of offence. Much of the debate focuses on those two extremes, but the real issues are dealt with every day by ordinary people just trying to live their ordinary lives. They’d rather not have to deal with things that annoy or upset them, and most people are reasonable and accommodate the needs of others, even if they don’t get it right first time.

The best tool for this task is empathy, so that we can make appropriate judgements on what’s acceptable given the circumstances and audience. We need to drop the snarl words surrounding tools used to make people’s passage through life a little easier. We don’t need ‘character-building’ experiences shoved down our throats all the time, and actually, sometimes a ‘safe space’ is the only respite from the original cause of offence and the free speech circus that comes with it. Sometimes people are offended by things, and that’s ok. We do need to get better at spotting potential sources of discord, and that requires us to think more carefully before putting pen to paper, hitting ‘send’, or wearing that ‘edgy’ shirt. Avoiding offence is a good thing, and allows us time to worry about more important stuff. We have to accept that we live in a multicultural world, and some people will have different norms and customs to others. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along?