Coping: It’s too bad you are bitter about my comment on Twitter
Hurt feelings are a poor reason for denying the right to free speech
Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters
I inadvertently offended someone online recently. It can be hard to avoid. Twitter allows you a 140-character limit. Within those parameters it is almost impossible to express a thought or idea fully. I stated the view that, even though the majority of sexism is directed towards women, and the majority of racism directed towards nonwhite people, that individuals of any gender or ethnicity can be bigoted.
It didn’t strike me as a controversial comment. I think that a woman I know – who says her husband is too incompetent to look after their young baby alone simply because he is male – is a bit sexist. I recently passed a black woman while walking down the street in London with my partner, who is black. She threw me a disapproving look. It was quite rude and, let’s face it, based solely on the colour of my skin. That is a tiny moment of bigotry.
It is obviously entirely different from the sort of institutional racism (and sexism) that has pushed minorities and women into relative powerlessness for generations. But we are all human; we are all equally capable of making uninformed, ignorant judgments. The idea that some people are magically immune to personal bigotry because they have experienced oppression themselves is dangerous.
But that is not how this person on Twitter saw it. They simply saw that I had said women can be sexist and immediately contacted me to tell me I am uninformed, poorly read and ignorant.
She didn’t know, for example, that at university I was so consumed by interest in this topic that I took extra courses on women’s studies and read voraciously about feminism and gender. She didn’t ask what my reasons were for thinking what I thought, or ask for clarification to check whether I intended the comment as she interpreted it.
She told me that I had simply gone too far, that my disagreement with her perspective was offensive. In other words, if you don’t think what I think, it is because you are a blithering idiot.
This got me thinking about offence as a concept, and John Stuart Mill in particular. He is known mostly for developing the utilitarian philosophy (based on the theories of his mentor Jeremy Bentham). Mill’s Harm Principle, in which he makes his defence of free speech, struck me again as an important guiding principle for society, even if it is not fully attainable. He believed in “absolute freedom of opinion on all subjects”. This had some logical exceptions: threats, deceitful comments and libel might count.
Basically, however, Mill supported people being allowed to say what they want, provided it did not cause harm. “Harm” is a vague term, but it can be argued confidently that when he used it, he didn’t mean hurt feelings or the capacity for comments to cause offence. He was made of stronger stuff.
What does offence really mean? We can probably agree that when we say “I am offended”, we do not mean that a person’s comments are irritating or that we disagree with them. It generally implies that a comment is repugnant or reprehensible in some way, that saying it is an act of wrongdoing.
Using the phrase “that’s offensive” is a way of imposing objectivity on a statement where there usually isn’t any, because morality is pretty relative. Mostly, an accusation that something is offensive is a public declaration that a person should not have said it, that they should be censured and possibly censored.
In some cases they should be. But perhaps we have taken the concept of offence too far in general. Feeling offended doesn’t have any necessary connection to truth. You can feel very strongly about something and still be totally wrong. Since silencing minorities is obviously undemocratic as a policy, perhaps we should emulate Mill more and be more tolerant of others’ opinions, even those we dislike.
We do not have a positive right not to be offended. Others do not have an obligation not to offend us. Instead of classing those who disagree with us as “other”, or unreasonable, perhaps we should engage in unemotional debate. The reasons why we hold a view make it legitimate or illegitimate, not the view itself.