The freedom to offend

13 May

 Freedom of Expression


This morning I’m thinking about Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson’s infamous “Occupy Melbourne” tweet; this piece I wrote about Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tyrannical demand that public servants “dob in” workmates they suspect of speaking ill of the government, and the fantasy of the “freedom to be heard.”

Wilson’s Timsplain on the “civilising” and “regulating” goals of curbing freedom of speech, specifically in employment contracts, can be read here.

The tweet:

@timwilsoncomau Walked past Occupy Melbourne protest, all people who think freedom of speech = freedom 2 b heard, time wasters … send in the water cannons

While sending in water cannons certainly serves to “regulate” behaviour, it is not in itself a civilised reaction to citizens exercising their right to speak freely about the principles and actions of governments. It still disturbs me to know that the Australian Commissioner for Freedom advocates state violence to suppress what he regards as “time-wasting” dissent, and considers such action “civilised.”

There is no such thing as the freedom to be heard. It’s impossible to make someone hear if he or she doesn’t wish to hear: they may give all the appearance of listening, but that doesn’t mean they’re hearing. It’s part of the vulnerability of being human that we can’t make anyone hear us, we can only hope that the other will care enough to bother.

Exercising the freedom not to hear is not a license to forcibly silence, whether by the use of water cannon or by implementing laws designed to protect those who don’t want to hear. For example, if Mr Wilson doesn’t want to hear protestors he doesn’t have to: he can take an alternative route, turn up his iPod, ignore news reports, in short, he can take responsibility for protecting himself from what he doesn’t want to hear, rather than depending on the state to do it for him.

While there is no right to freedom to be heard, there is no right not to be offended either. The increasing demand for the state to protect individuals from what is regarded as “offensive” across the entire spectrum of human behaviours is alarming, and crippling. It is paradoxical that conservative politicians and public figures make much of their desire for “small government,” while simultaneously seeking to prescribe state enforced restrictions on a wide range of attitudes and behaviours in their attempt to establish a society in which no one behaves in a manner determined by them to be “offensive.” To “offend” someone has become a significant, well, offence.

It goes without saying, one imagines, that to commit any crime against another is inherently offensive, and our laws already have crimes covered. Offence is subjective: I am offended by Mr Wilson’s use of social media to advocate state violence against protestors, however, even if I wanted to, I have no means available to me to turn the water cannon on him because he does not have the freedom to be heard. I can ignore him. Block him on social media. Complain about him on my blog. In other words, take responsibility for regulating and civilising my own world without calling upon the state to do it for me.

The only citizens the state will protect from “offence” are those with whom it is in agreement. All others it will seek to silence, one way or another. Even in a liberal democracy such as ours, the state will and does seek to silence dissent. It is in the nature of political power that those who have it seek to retain it, by any means available. The courts are hog-tied by whatever legislation the government of the day manages to implement.

For an insight into this demand for protection from the “offensive” on a popular cultural level, it’s worth reading Helen Razer’s piece on how difficult it is to be a “bad girl,” and the effort now required if one is to be at all transgressive, and why.

Transgression is impossible without causing offence. Transgression is by its very nature offensive to someone. A society that punishes what it considers offensive, making the offensive a crime in itself, is a society in which transgression of all kinds  is increasingly curtailed and silenced. The current dearth of satirical political comment in this country is but one example of this curtailing of transgression on the grounds that it is “offensive” and, as Mr Wilson would have it, uncivilised.

There is no human right that promises the freedom not to be offended. It is to say the least extremely unfortunate that we have in this country a Commissioner for Freedom who advocates turning water cannon on those who offend him. The protestors did not attack him. They did not threaten him. They merely spoke what he did not wish to hear. If we are entering or have entered a period in which another’s free speech is just cause for advocating state violence in order to silence them, we are in very dangerous waters indeed.

(I just looked out of my bedroom window to see snow falling. Ah.)



9 Responses to “The freedom to offend”

  1. paul walter May 13, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

    Good morning Jennifer.

    I might come back a little later, when the offence I suffer at the mention of the name Tim Wilson abates somewhat. The best that can be said of Tim Wilson and his corrupted appointment to a position where the role and function of Freedom commissioner seems anathema to him, is that the ideological and pathological madness that envelopes people like Wilson, Howard, Abbott, Pyne and Maurice Newman alerted the public to a situation like the one involving Bjorn Lomborg arising and made such an event capable of being dealt with by rational people.

    Isn’t there a difference between Razer and Wilson?

    Razer is a wordsmith who employs vivid language to facilitate communication. Wilson is just a pathologially deficient moron who is intensely offensive without any conscious effort to be so, to any purpose that appears to be and or have a point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson May 13, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

      I have offended you! Get out your water cannon! It will turn to ice up here in the mountains


  2. Stewart Hase May 13, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    I suspect we are moving ever closer to Orwell’s 1984. I think he was very perspicacious.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Michaela Tschudi May 13, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    I refuse to be silenced by anyone, especially Freedom Boy. In any case, he’s one of the few speakers I’ve seen read their speech at a conference and that didn’t impress me one iota.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. samjandwich May 13, 2015 at 5:57 pm #

    I couldn’t quite assimilate Helen Razer’s article in one gulp – but I sort of wonder whether the relative difficulty of being bad, and the relative impotence of Tim Wilson and his, er, ejaculations, is precisely because we have so many forms of demystification at our disposal these days, from forums like Sheep, to neuropsychiatric deconstruction. No point trying to be polemical anymore, because the world at large will clock you straight away for what your real motivations are, even if you don’t yet recognise them yourself.

    Really the only thing that offends these days is material that cheapens and debases the human condition as it is collectively understood. That’s why despite my ideological support for free speech I’d secretly like to ban the Australian, the Daily Telegraph, A Current Affair…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. doug quixote May 14, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

    The fool Abbott is minister for women; the fool Tim Wilson is Australian Human Rights Commissioner. The fool Hockey is the Treasurer.

    If there were to be such a thing as a deity, he or she must have a dark sense of humour.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. hudsongodfrey May 15, 2015 at 12:45 am #

    I take it this matter of the Occupy protests goes back a year or so?

    If so then what this really represents isn’t so much an unthinkable general sentiment as one that is deeply inappropriate to Wilson’s role.

    I don’t like or agree with Wilson’s approach nor disagree that they’re wedging the debate around free speech in a transparently self serving and highly corrosive manner.

    It is perhaps less common but nonetheless still possible these days to live in the kind of insular bubble that feeds the popularity of isolationist views and other similarly narrow agendas. That’s what controlling the culture wars is largely about. Defining the line between “our views” and “others’ views”, by promoting various propaganda agendas is the bane of any democracy where almighty self-interest manages to subvert ethical concerns.

    Which is why I think the occupy movement has been both healthy and necessary, even though I also think it squandered its opportunities.

    If you’re going to take an action and make your presence felt then there’s a tacit assumption that dialogue with the people you’re taking the action against has already proven fruitless. What really matters in any such protest is gathering the weight of public opinion behind you, and demonstrating your ability to do so.

    If it is allowed to go on for too long a street protest can start to lose its value. You’re just somebody else locked in interminable disagreement. You’re Israel/Palestine or sectarian conflict anywhere from Ireland to ISIS, you’re abortion protesters placarding a clinic for all the good it will do you.

    Sooner or later if you lack either public support or a position that’s actually going anywhere then the language of free speech wears thin. Your right to say it and somebody else’s right to rebut only make sense when the dialogue moves you towards resolution.

    When it tends to nagging slogans or hurling epithets then the difference between impassioned self expression and public nuisance is basically just time.

    Somebody was always going to call a halt to the occupy protests eventually. I just think Wilson occupies an office that any other government might reckon was denigrated by that kind of tweet. There’s an obvious double standard here, but the real problem is it’s lost in the throng of it’s siblings……

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: