Freedom of speech is very high up on the list of my most important values – as I believe it is for most. However, following the expansion of social media as a platform where anyone and everyone can have their say on any topic under the sun it seems that freedom of speech has become confused with the freedom of not being offended.
I used to be an avid Tumblr user some years ago. At first it was a cool place for pop culture and fandoms where you’d find a lot of people deeply devoted to sci-fi shows doing character studies and meta-analyses and what have you. Feminism, LGBTQ rights and anti-racism were always prevalent and I have to say I learned a lot about everyday sexism and racism in the U.S. (most users seemed to be American) among other things. But then gradually everything became offensive to someone, and the term ‘trigger warning’ started to appear.
By the way, I’ve now heard that some universities in the U.S. and even in the UK have student bodies demanding that lecturers issue trigger warnings and refrain from using certain words lest they cause a student to be upset – or rather traumatised.
I sometimes wonder how the human race has survived for this long…
The thought behind this is that some topics may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault or otherwise. I can see the value of the idea but so long as media platforms like Tumblr don’t automatically generate trigger warnings haphazard tagging by a minimal number of users seems pointless.
With regard to establishments of higher education and research, I can hardly think of a worse course of action than to start censoring people in spaces which were created for free enquiry, research, discussion, debate and open critique of ideas and theories. I simply cannot stand the thought of going to do a Masters degree and finding out that the professors and lecturers are having to hold themselves back in the fear of accidentally making someone feel uncomfortable. This is inconceivable – and in my honest opinion, individuals who feel that they would be seriously damaged by hearing certain words or discussing certain topics should probably not go to a university in the first place. Being uncomfortable is crucial for intellectual development.
“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”
– Stephen Fry
But back to Tumblr: the more I read responses to apparently triggering content, the more I came to realise that for the most part people were merely upset or angry about something they had read, rather than actually triggered in a psychologically serious way. In Finnish we have a wonderful word,’mielensäpahoittaja’, for people who seem to actively look for things to get offended by so that they can attack the alleged offender. As soon as one seeks to shut down a conversation or silence their opponent on the grounds of being offended, in my eyes, they have lost. No problem was ever solved by declaring it a taboo.
So then I stopped using Tumblr because my blood pressure couldn’t handle the “How dare you use that word you racist, trans-phobic, misogynist, white supremacist, ableist, sociopathic cunt!!!” type of rhetoric that was rampant.
Escaping Tumblr was only a short-term solution and being offended is increasingly trendy in every nook of social media. Of course there are words like nigger or fag that are found offensive in most of their uses. However words in and of themselves are not and can not be offensive; we give them meaning and one can either chose – or not, to give or take offence. There are ideas that can be viewed as offensive, such as women as second-class citizens, and of course some people find nudity or homosexuality terribly upsetting. All in all everyone has a right to be offended. This is not an issue. The issue is the misconception that being offended means you are right and the other person is wrong; that somehow you, as the offended party are entitled to be de-offended. Spoiler alert: you are not, and none of us are. Taking offence is our own business, and if we wish to confront our perceived offenders we have every right to defend our views. But simply stating “This is offensive” is not effective advocacy, and will not aid your cause whatever it may be.
The world is full of interesting and hard conversations to be had and the real tragedy is if intelligent and insightful people start to censor themselves under the pressure of thin-skinned opponents and audiences. I firmly believe that any topic should be open for discussion and any idea fair game for critique. We should all recognise that when our ideas, views and beliefs are being criticised, we as persons are not under attack. For instance, when I question your religious ideology I am not questioning your personhood, morality or value. I would never deliberately offend a person but I would offend an idea.
How about actually offensive and hateful speech though – isn’t that bad? I think everyone should have the right to present themselves precisely as bigoted and ignorant as they in fact are. Genuinely bad ideas will more than likely be faced with mockery, and genuinely malicious speech will be condemned. Shutting people up won’t stop them from generating stupid ideas, laughing them off the stage might.
That said, when it comes to representing the views of a group of people, one ought to be held more accountable for their statements as they are in fact not only speaking for themselves.
‘If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, “Well I’m still waiting to hear what your point is”.’
– Christopher Hitchens
The Thinking Atheist Podcast – I’m Offended!
Sam Harris and Jonatahan Haidt talk about political correctness on campus and lots of other things (just listen to all of Sam’s podcast episodes, he’s brilliant and you might get offended)
SubReddit about Social Justice Warriors on Tumblr and elsewhere (it’s funny ok)
All of Christopher Hitchens’ debates on YouTube (he’s the bomb)