You don’t have the right not to be offended

OffendedBy Jonathan Roberts / @robertsjonathan

We all know that freedom of speech is a cherished hallmark of any civilised society. The recent uprisings of people from across the Middle-East and North Africa show that the right to hold and express ones views is a universal requirement of the human race. Our individuality makes us what we are, and it is right that we should be free to express it in the way we deem fit.

Different countries and groups of people attain these freedoms at varying stages. Here in the UK, the evolution of our freedom of speech has taken a course lasting thousands of years – with various milestones being reached thoughout our history; the Magna Carta, the restoration of the Monarchy and, more recently, the fight against Nazi oppression that claimed so many lives. When we today hold rights that our ancestors died to give us, we have a solemn duty to ensure these rights are never given up.

This evolution continues, but is increasingly policed by a hyperactive media and over-sensitive group of individuals intent on replacing the right to free speech with a right to ‘not be offended’. But in a world where so many are so easily offended, and so many with perfectly legitimate views are told they ‘can’t say that’, we are quickly walking down a path where it has become far less troublesome to simply not say anything at all.

Brian True-May, the producer of Midsomer Murders is the perfect example. He dared to point out last week that rural English villages tend to be made up of an entirely white population, and that casting more black or asian actors into the show would depict a racial diversity that simply doesn’t ring true in these communities. As someone who grew up in a rural village, and who must have been to several hundred English villages in his life, I know that his comments are based on fact. And yet ITV has suspended him and branded his comments as ‘shocking and appalling’. Why are they shocking? Why are they appalling? And why are the media telling us to be offended?

For some, Mr True-May’s comments will fall into the bracket of ‘it’s true, but you just don’t say it’. But here’s another question. If it’s true, why can’t you say it?

Have we, the country of internationally acclaimed stoicism, really become so wet? What we seem to have forgotten is that when we are offended, nothing actually happens. If somebody says something we don’t like, you will find no swarms of locusts coming from the sky, no plague upon our houses.

Now, before one of those overly sensitive types tries to twist my words, I am clearly not talking about examples of genuine racism, sexism or homophobia – where those from certain groups are placed under threat of violence or have their opportunities restricted purely for who they are. Indeed, anyone who has faced such genuine threats should too get annoyed when people get their knickers in a twist about harmless and trivial comments.

I’ve been called ‘white trash’ by a black person. A ‘typical bloody man’ by a woman. And a ‘stupid faith-head’ by an atheist. But as a white, Christian man I am apparently unable to complain of such abuse because I am, well, a white Christian man.

And you know what? It doesn’t particularly bother me – largely because I’m a grown-up who understands the world does not exist to protect me from the words of mean people.

As a man who is always pretty upfront about how he feels, I’ve gotten myself into a fair amount of trouble before amongst my friends who belong to the ‘you can’t say that’ brigade. I once explained how I always pay on a first date with a girl, which apparently makes me sexist. I once met a man from France who I thought was really annoying, which apparently makes me racist. I once explained that, as a straight man, I find it a little weird if I see two men kissing, which apparently makes me homophobic (two seconds later when a gay friend taking part in the same light-hearted conversation confessed that he feels the same way when he sees a man and a woman kiss, he faced no equivalent accusation).

For crying out loud. Are these things really so bad? If a woman wants to go halves with me on the dinner bill, I don’t threaten her. If I meet that French bloke again, I won’t find him annoying just because he is French. And if I see two guys having a snog I won’t especially care. So am I really that horrible a person?

Words are just words. But so many innocent comments are now condemned without real analysis. The real problem lies, as Brian True-May will tell you, when we are not allowed to express them for fear of disproportionate retribution.

Perhaps it’s time for us all just to relax a little. Fight bigotry where it genuinely exists, and learn to shrug our shoulders a little more where it doesn’t.

I am sure, as is the way, that some will be offended by my views, and I’m OK with that. All I’ll say to them is that I am offended whenever I hear Justin Bieber on the radio. I just have to get over it.

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