Recently, Rowan Atkinson gave a speech defending ‘the right to offend’. He’s missed the point.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good idea. And I like Rowan Atkinson, who speaks very eloquently, so it is actually difficult for me to disagree with him, yet here we are. Atkinson gave an excellent little speech about the “reasonable and well-intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in society”, which he believes will only lead to a “new kind of intolerance”.
It’s not clear when the speech was given, but Twitter user Darren Grimes posted it on August 11, 2018. Basically, the speech goes on to examine how left-leaning folk are only “intolerant of intolerance”, and that this isn’t very smart “if you think about it for more than five seconds”.
Quoting former US President Barack Obama’s UN address, he says that the key to combating these “obnoxious elements” is “more speech”, and that our society needs a “robust dialogue” including the right to “insult or offend”.
Rowan Atkinson’s free speech crusade extends way beyond his defence of Boris Johnson’s right to offend. This speech has to be one of the best in defence of it. pic.twitter.com/T5Z7ePBezW
— Darren Grimes (@darrengrimes_) August 10, 2018
This all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?
Honestly, I do understand where he’s coming from, and it’s not the first time he’s spoken out about the “creeping culture of censoriousness”. I also understand that, for a comedian especially, what can and cannot be said seems scary. No longer in our society does the excuse “it was only a joke” really hold water. But there’s a difference between a light-hearted gag – or even a heavy, political one – and someone in a position of power punching down at a group of people.
I agree to an extent that as a society, we do not have a right to not be offended. People are offended by all different types of things, and some of them are valid and some of them less so. Some people are offended that others think the Bible is hogwash, others are offended by being told that their taste in music sucks, and still others take offence to not being treated equally in society.
See what I did there? I used comedy’s classic Rule of Three to point out that not all senses of offence are equal. An alt-right mansplainer isn’t going to listen to reason when someone tries to tell him that Jews don’t run the media, because he isn’t interested in facts. In fact, in a lot of these cases, facts don’t change our minds.
Nonsense peddler Ben Shapiro might be a proponent of the idiom “facts don’t care about your feelings”, and yet look at what happens when, say, a conspiracy theorist comes up against hard facts that show their conspiracy is nonsense.
Sometimes, you cannot change someone’s mind with “more speech”. Allowing people to scream “kike” at me, and allowing them to chant “Jews will not replace us” at a rally doesn’t allow for anything but the demonising of a group of people.
I understand for a comedian what can and cannot be said seems scary. But there’s a difference between a light-hearted gag – or even a heavy, political one – and someone in a position of power punching down at a group of people.
Some forms of speech, yes, should be outlawed. And, in fact, they already are. Hate speech laws exist. They exist to protect people from sexist and racist slurs, and should extend to making sure people like Lauren Southern and Blair Cottrell don’t have a platform.
They don’t deserve a platform because what their “speech” is all about is “hate” and talking to them isn’t likely to change that. More speech, in this case, is allowing networks, social media sites and the public to say, “No, enough, you aren’t allowed to do this anymore.”
I feel like I’m repeating myself, because I know I’ve shouted this from the rooftops before, but freedom of speech (“more speech”) does not give you freedom from consequences. Sure, maybe you are – and maybe you should be – allowed to screech any old thing at the top of your lungs, but that doesn’t give you the right – or the freedom – to get away with it in polite society. You get kicked out of a restaurant for screaming obscenities, don’t you?
If the definition of “more speech” is “expanding protest rights” or “ensuring that people are protected”, then yeah, I’m all for it. But that isn’t really what Atkinson is saying here, as much as it pains me to say. He mentions specifically the rights of someone to “insult or offend”.
I guess, for me, that simply raises the question of why you’d want to deliberately use language that offends or insults people? There’s a difference between calling someone a “dickhead” or a “fuckwit” and calling someone by a racial slur, or demeaning someone because of their gender.
You see that, right?