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The House Believes in the Unconditional Right to Offend

So the free speech debate is really a balancing act. We need to consider our different values as they come into conflict, and then make a decision about which ones we think we should privilege. It many cases freedom will trump. In others, it should not.


Sam Deans

Let's be clear on what this motion means outside the Cambridge Bubble. It indicates consent for a government to a) define offence and b) legislate against it. Here's why that's an awful idea.

When we consider principles like freedom of speech, we have to ask why it is that we hold them. For me, the best arguments for most moral standards are consequential. Take freedom of speech, for example. First, it leads to what is often described as a "free market" of ideas - we will be exposed to better ideas, and the best ones will come to prominence at the detriment of poorer ones. Also, the right to freedom of speech is good for individuals - when people can express their feelings about the world, they have a means to complain about unfair treatment. To support conditions on the right for those ideas to be offensive is to allow the government to curb thisexchange of ideas. There are two major reasons why we should be worried about this.

The first reason is the suppression of minority morality. Although not every instance of offence is a useful contribution to a debate (cf Hopkins on more or less anything - I'm reserving my right to offend Sun readers here), there are moral decisions which need to be made where the outcome will offend some people. An example is the debate over women's access to abortions. For many people, the answer to this debate is clear-cut, and anyone arguing to the contrary is advocating the abhorrent violation of basic human rights. Unfortunately, that is also how the other side feels. Whichever happens to be more popular in a given country at a given time should not prevent those who disagree from even discussing the issue. The risk is, that in trying to come up with definitions of offence to stop people calling migrants "cockroaches", legitimate dissent on a range of issues will be prevented too, on the grounds that it is morally offensive to the majority. This is a clear mechanism where change in views will be stifled by measures designed to curb offence.

The second mechanism for this stems not from clumsy bureaucracy but from how individuals will respond to an anti-offence policy. There is a great feeling in the UK that 'political correctness' defines restrictive boundaries to discourse, and resentment of this means that people become entrenched in their views. This is clear in the debate about immigration in the UK, and the common orthodoxy that the Left sees talking about immigration as racism. This, ironically, stops people from taking any criticism when what they say is genuinely offensive. An official prohibition on offence would not eradicate 'offensive' views, but preserve them.

In truth, student debates about No Platform policies, angry tweets written to smug New Statesman journalists, or even Brendan O'Neil's most recent rant on Spiked are insignificant in the extreme to the wider importance of free speech. Free speech is, at its core, a protection for dissenting voices from the views of the current regime or the wider social mores. Without an unalienable right to say what we think, we lose the exchange of ideas which makes freedom of speech so valuable.


James Riseley

Debating Officer

Last year, Australia's Attorney General George Brandis announced his intentions to cut out part of Australia's Racial Discrimination Act. He wanted to remove section 18C, that section which made it illegal to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone on the basis of their "race, colour or national or ethnic origin". It would still be illegal to directly incite others to hatred. But whether a comment was offensive would no longer be relevant when determining whether it was legal.

How he justified the changes (which luckily were later dropped) has become infamous: "People have the right to be bigots you know," he said, "in this country people have the right to say things that other people find offensive or bigoted".

His comments would not look out of place in a speech at the Cambridge Union, or a Guardian op-ed defending our unconditional right to offend others. Unfortunately, comments like his point to the broken nature of those debates. How we talk about free speech is misguided.

We frame the free speech debate almost exclusively in terms of the issue of 'offense' - what is offensive, who gets to decide, whether offensive speech be permitted, and so on. That is an important issue, but it is by no means the only issue. And there are reasons other than 'offense' - in many cases more powerful ones - why we ought to curtail some kinds of speech. We need to cast the debate in a different, more nuanced light.

We need to unpack what we mean when we call something offensive, because the term itself is unhelpfully broad. A homophobe may be 'offended' when they see two men holding hands in the street; a survivor of sexual assault may be 'offended' upon hearing someone trivialize rape. What those two people are feeling is not the same thing, and anyone who suggests as much is foolish. In light of that, I want to argue (1) that offense is sometimes a good reason to curtail speech, but that (2) we ignore other reasons why we should curtail speech by fetishizing the word 'offense'.

As a society we place an enormous value on freedom, especially free speech. But as a society we also value things other than freedom. Even the most die-hard defender of free speech presumably supports laws against libel and direct incitement to hatred/violence. Those laws are an affront to free speech, but we think that the speech they are banning isn't worth the harm it causes to others.

So the free speech debate is really a balancing act. We need to consider our different values as they come into conflict, and then make a decision about which ones we think we should privilege. It many cases freedom will trump. In others, it should not.

Everyone is well aware that Katie Hopkins recently compared asylum seekers to "cockroaches". She has been lambasted for those comments, and police are investigating whether they constitute incitement to hatred. Regardless, if she had written her article in Australia, she may well have been in trouble for breaking section 18C of the RDA. And quite rightly so.

You say: offense should not be a test for whether a speech-act is legal. I say: stop saying the word 'offense' and look at the speech-act itself. When swastikas are painted on the walls of synagogues in France, when members of the Westboro Baptist Church picket the funerals of dead soldiers, shouting "God hates fags," and "God hates America," and when Katie Hopkins vilifies asylum seekers, more is happening than the utterance of sounds.

Using mere words, we can cause people profound grief - we can bully them, we can humiliate them, we can make them feel uncomfortable going outside and with themselves.

So you can call Katie Hopkins' article offensive. You would be right. I would say it is offensive, but it is also so much more than that. Instead of using hollow labels, we should look at how an asylum seeker would feel when they read it - the kind of shame it would engender, the impact it would have on their ability to live life as they want to. If we did that, I suspect more people would be willing to abandon their free speech fundamentalism, and support measures like 18C.

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