Thursday, 1 January 2015

Right to offend or Right to be offended

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ – Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With the advent of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, noticing your voice is no longer a very difficult task; however the pragmatic question always arises owing to the noticeable nature of our voice – whether we actually have the right to voice?

Lately; a furore is often created by a certain mob over any insignificant remark made by any person whose identity less than 100 people would’ve known till the person hits the headlines over an alleged ‘hurting sentiments of the masses’ charge. Now, this leads to further questions – were people as such never strong in their opinion till the 21st century or is it just that people are getting offended too easily.

Recently, during an occasion, a certain well known person had tweeted which caused outrage leading news outlets to put up a headline questioning whether ‘Does Freedom of speech give people the right to offend?’ None of the other headlines bothered me as much as this one considering, in all the other incidents I’ve witnessed regarding misuse of law over petty comments in social media, the media has always given unconditional support to the victim of such misuse, however, this headline sent me to deep thoughts questioning whether the media has finally sucked up to the extremists and the cultural terrorists.

When you question whether people have the right to offend, there is something that fundamentally needs to be defined – what is an offence and how can you do it to people otherwise than by means of physical contact or direct hurling of abuse / dirt slinging. However, more often than not, the ones that hit the headlines are not the ones that fall under the aforementioned categories, rather, remarks made on issues that have a direct impact on either of the parties. Usually, these events are triggered by those remarks that are made with intent to hurt the sentiments of the masses. This simply leads to another question, what are these sentiments? Does this mean that people, fundamentally, have the right to be offended than the converse? Based on what I understand, you can be offended by anything – personally, I could very easily claim that I’m profoundly offended when someone speaks of ill of Chelsea Football Club, a club that I support but is it covered under the purview of these sentiments? Understandably so, it isn’t, so, there is an unwritten distinction between significant sentiments and those that aren’t significant but that distinction practically can never be made and that is when those who wish to be expressive are being hindered.

I’m reminded of a statement of author Philip Pullman when he was asked about his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (click the link to read the review in Astute) and the same being offensive to an ordinary Christian –

‘No one has the right to live without being shocked, nobody has the right to live their life without being offended, nobody has to read this book, nobody has to pick it up, nobody has to open it but if they open it up and read it, they don’t have to like it and if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent; you can write to me, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, or you can write your own book; you can do all those things but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book, no one has the right to stop this book being published or sold or bought or read and that’s all I’ve to say on this.’

Well, this pretty much nails it – people have various means to voice their dissent but their dissent can’t be the sole reason to stop somebody from expressing or saying something.

We’re always told that we live in a free, multi-faceted society but I fail to understand how for anything and everything, one of the elements of this multi-faceted society raise an issue of being offended over anything and everything. In my opinion, people are beginning to take things far too seriously and we all must understand something when it comes to the concept of Freedom of Speech – nobody is ever going to exercise this right to say that ‘The sun rises from the east’ or ‘Life is finite’ for these are facts that nobody is going to dispute and you don’t need to be protected by a freedom to state a fact. So, the entire concept comes in only when you’re going to say something that is controversial or offensive to certain groups of people and that is when you require the protection of the law to uphold the freedom and not have other laws to revoke this freedom and give people the right to be offended and when that is done, the whole the entire concept loses its meaning.

In my strongest of opinions, the right to offend is very much necessary in a free society and I’d end this write-up with another quote from a well-known author who has written a lot on the subject –

‘What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.’ – Sir Salman Rushdie

Have a nice day,