The foundation of progress and liberty

“Sir, I have never been so insulted in all my life”

“Come now madam, with a face like that you must have been.”

It is easy to see causing, or not causing, offence as simply an extension of good manners.  Easy, but entirely wrong.  The conditions in which Africans were shipped in the transatlantic slave trade were offensive, but it is not bad manners to mention those facts.   And almost any subject of debate can involve enthusiasts on either side being offended by the other side.  John Julius Norwich’s magisterial book ‘The Popes’ chronicles Christianity’s doctrinal struggles.   Today, few in the UK see any controversy when singing hymns about God, the Holy Trinity, being ‘Consubstantial, coeternal’, or about Christ being ‘begotten not created’ but the conflict between this Monophysite view, and Arian ‘heresy’ that Christ was subordinate to the father, is one over which people actually went to war, and condemned their fellow Christians to gruesome deaths.   William Tyndale was burned at the stake, having caused offence to authority by translating the bible into English.  Many still feel strongly about these issues, even if they lack the inclination to shed blood over them.

Should we be ruled by a monarch, as per the ‘Divine right of kings?’.  Or does the moral authority to rule us (if any) exist only insofar as those wielding it are democratically appointed (and removable) by the people?  Or should we be ruled theocratically by the wisest and most holy priests?  All three approaches have sincere adherents who find the alternatives offensive, often to the point of seeing them as evil incarnate.

Even within the democratic tradition, one can’t expect unanimity.  Direct democrats are uncomfortable with representative democracy.  When my Great Aunt Marion was a suffragette, her views and protests so offended the establishment that she was arrested.  These days many people are offended that the suffragettes ever had to campaign to have the same votes as their menfolk.    More recently, we find that even the definition of a woman (‘adult human female’) is offensive to some, while any other definition is offensive to others.

To some people saying ‘All lives matter’ is the right way to show concern for all humanity, and to recognise the divine in all of us.  Racially-specific mantras, such as ‘Black lives matter’, or ‘white lives matter’, can be seen as offensive and having divisive overtones.  For others, injustices in the USA mean that they find it offensive when the ‘Black lives matter’ meme/campaign is ‘hijacked’ by other colours/races, or is universalised to ‘All lives matter’.

Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” has gone from being offensively revolutionary for preaching equality to segregationist 1960s Southern Democrats, to being offensively reactionary for preaching that same equality, and colour-blind equal treatment, to 2020s UC Berkley Democrats who think "In order to beat racism we must first become racists ourselves!" (the university students have some segregated housing, but think segregation in ok when it favours ‘people of colour’).

Rules against causing offence are not designed to actually prevent offence.   It is inconceivable that a western democracy would actually punish someone for arguing in favour of democracy, even when that argument offends those believing in the divine right of kings, and is offensive heresy to those that think God wants theocratic rule (whether modelled on post-revolutionary Iran, or the Holy Roman Empire).

In practice laws against causing offence are nothing more than a cudgel with which to attack those that dissent from the orthodoxy of the ruling elite, or from the cherished beliefs of organised voting blocks.   The question becomes not ‘is anyone offended by the statement?’, but ‘Should the state use its power to support the people this statement offends?’.

Believe in the divine right of Kings?  Sorry, that’s not a protected belief, people can offend you by ridiculing it and contradicting it.  Believe that women should have the vote?  Yes that’s protected, and we will take action against anyone who offends you by arguing in favour of British democracy as it was before the 1928 Representation of the People Act.  Believe in common humanity & colour blind equal treatment?  That was once acceptable, but is no longer protected, people can call for ‘well intentioned’ racism, however offensive you find the idea.

We must avoid getting into the wisdom of the offence-censor’s judgement.  However the power is being used, its use is wrong, and its existence is incompatible with freedom of expression, or even freedom of ideas, freedom of thought.

We have arrived where we are through a battle of ideas in which novel concepts like that of heliocentric planetary arrangement, democracy, universal suffrage, and equal rights for minorities, have been free to challenge the status quo and, have prevailed.    Whether in person, in print, online, or on broadcast media, we must not deny oxygen to heresies, or shield people from ‘offence’.  Doing so necessarily involves censoring not only views, but ideas, and even facts.

Schopenhauer’s observed  "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self evident.  Those stages are seen time and again, not only with philosophy, but also facts:

Female equality?  From Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth century ridiculing women’s abilities “like a dog walking on its hind legs, one wonders not that it is done well, but that it is done at all’.  To the twentieth century when suffragettes were imprisoned and the idea of female suffrage was treated as so dangerous that it required violent suppression.  To the twenty first century when it is treated as a self evident truth.

When an idea reaches the ‘dangerous’ second stage, any prohibitions on giving offence will be pressed into service by those that would preserve the status quo.   Offence becomes a trump card that obviates the need to discuss the underlying idea.  It is not a tactic needed by anyone with confidence in their own position.

Those calling for Britain to become a republic should be allowed to air their views.    Not because they are ‘legitimate’ or ‘reasonable’, (though they are) but because for the law to take any other approach is inconsistent with our freedom.  And because, if they are right, it would be invidious to block them, and if they are wrong, then we monarchists should be able to explain why.

Once we lose the ability to voice offensive views, the censors, thus emboldened inevitably move on to limit the propagation of offensive facts.   The issue of a paedophilia problem in the priesthood was first ridiculed as a loony conspiracy theory,  then opposed as a subversive attack in the Church.   The problem is now acknowledged as a self evident truth, the Pope has apologised, as has the CofE.  Yet in the 1970s and 80s, when the idea was being attacked as a dangerous falsehood,  individual rape victims, children coming forward, risk being branded as ‘liars’ and attacked, because facts that could bolster a ‘dangerous idea’ were themselves targets of suppression.   The same thing happened with grooming gangs, a girl reported her rape to a policeman only to be attacked by him for being a ‘racist prostitute’.

We have gone from ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ to ‘Criticising the sin is being hateful to the sinner, which is offensive and must be banned’.  Thus, we have a kafkaesque world in which sinners can cite their ‘being offended’ as a reason to silence those pointing out their crimes.

The right to give offence is not a bug in Free Speech, but an essential feature, the foundation on which we build progress & exercise freedom.   Almost every idea of any worth is, or has been, offensive, to someone, at some point.

Slightly stretching a point, I enlist to the cause, one of my heroes, F.E.Smith

Judge:       “You are extremely offensive, young man!

Smith:             “As a matter of fact we both are.  The only difference between us is that I am trying to be, and you can't help it

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