What do we mean by offensive remarks and gestures ?
We live in an extremely interconnected society where we can communicate with a large amount of people, some we have not even met, from varying cultures and places. Our culture is a wondrous array of different idealisms, trends, fads and belief systems with its diversity being shown in people around the world.
With this diversity of ideas and belief systems comes an inevitability, due to ideas contradictory to one another or senses of egoistic superiority, which is disagreement. This happens everyday on the internet where anonymity aids the ferocity of arguments between theists and atheists, supporters of different football teams, groupies of competing boy bands ad infinitum. It also happens in person between members of family, where the traditional views of parents conflict with the liberal aspects of their young or between friends and even strangers.
As we are humans and have evolved the capacity to feel, for better or worse, during these spouts of disagreement a lot of people react negatively to their ideas being challenged or mocked. This negative reaction is also shown when people are themselves slated with nothing to do with the ideas they think to be true. These reactions vary in intensity and some even use violence to air how 'offended' they feel.
A mundane example could be that you meet a tourist from a different part of the world who visits your city and upon meeting you describe how great your city is and then he describes how great his city is also. Then you both realise that your own city is better and start to bicker on who lives in a better place, the tourist feels offended and leaves angrily. This is basically the 'patriotic offender' who believes his birthplace is the best solely because he was born there by chance and slates every other country or territory.
A more pressing and extreme example is when the Western media mocks the prophet Muhammad of the Muslim faith or burns the Q'ran which evokes extreme reactions from the Muslim community because they feel offended that their religious faith and articles are being mocked or publicly disagreed with.
So offensive acts explicitly challenge or contradict another idea which causes negative emotional reactions from their believers, it also includes ad hominem (insulting each other on personal traits) attacks also.
Therefore we can say being offended equates to being in a negative emotional state where you feel your own traits and beliefs are being negatively portrayed. The discussion then revolves around whether a persons right to avoid this emotional state weighs more than having the right to challenge other peoples beliefs and traits. We shall come to see that people can avoid being offended and still be challenged at the same time.
An argument against offence based on Bentham's happiness principle
One simple argument against the right for people to offend and protecting the right to not be offended comes from the greatest happiness principle. This principle states that in a society the general happiness of its citizens should be its main priority.
The argument goes like this: Being offended is a negative emotional state in which X is not happy, the offender Y gains a small amount of happiness for offending X. It is shown that in general the magnitude of happiness Y gets is smaller than the loss of happiness of any X. So therefore there is a net loss of happiness every time someone gets offended, so the government which looks to put legislation in place to protect its citizens and provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people should make offensive acts illegal.
This is the first argument I thought of against people offending others and it is literally bursting with erroneous assumptions, impracticalities and just shoddy thinking. Firstly, if we play along with Bentham's principle for a moment, we assume that over time restraining offence will lead to a happier society but will it? I mean some offensive remarks actually do lead to useful debates on hot topics in the society be it vaccinations, education, science and how people should live their lives so maybe allowing offensive remarks can lead to people changing their minds (in light of arguments etc.) in order to live easier and happier lives. So restraining offence might not actually be the optimal way to increase happiness in a society.
I cannot stand the principle of happiness. It assumes that happiness is a precisely measurable quantity and in order for society to place efficient laws there would need to be a 'happiness calculator' for every action a citizen would do. Happiness is a complicated thing, scientists do not exactly know what constitutes the mental state of happiness and they are far from measuring it well enough for it be the base of all law in a society. Also the argument and principle assumes that happiness is the only ultimate goal of a society.. is it? There doesn't seem to be any evidenced based reason to assign any ultimate goal to a human society.
So this argument against offence is really a very weak one. I hope to have done it some justice and it is an argument many people do use, they really think that they have a right to not be put in this emotional state of being offended but underneath this thinking there seems to be no strong argument.
Let's move on to a more challenging argument against offence.
An argument against offence based on incitement of violence
This argument stems largely from John Stuart Mill's 'Harm principle' which was originally formulated in his great book 'On Liberty'. It is of great contemporary importance in moral discussions and in direct application of laws on hate speech. Mill's words on the principle are exemplary and it would do this discussion justice to show them here:
‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’ - J.S. Mill (On Liberty (68) )Let's look at another extreme example which is racial hate speech. If I was to publicly share my hate towards another race either verbally or in written form there would be a huge uproar. People would congregate and share their extreme negative feelings of being offended towards me. As racial hatred has such a deep history of pain, suffering and evil some people on getting offended by my remarks will simply strike me down out of rage as if there extreme feelings of hatred toward me compelled them to use violence to stop me. Who is the wrong?
Well my racial hate speeches obviously led to a congregation of very upset people and those that used violence wouldn't have needed to if I didn't start my speeches in the first place. So it seems my racial hate speeches incited their violence towards me and potentially anyone with me or any passers by out of emotional rage. As violence should be prevented at all times because allowing violence leads to a barbaric and chaotic society we should therefore ban any speech which leads to a possibility of violence. So offensive speech should be banned because it always elicits a negative response which could lead to violence.
This argument, which I have purposefully constructed weakly for the time being, seems stronger than the argument from happiness as it is true that most humans in today's world do believe that the prevention of violence is a shared interest. However one of the assumptions made in this argument is that all offensive acts are done to cause violence or are intrinsically useless. Another thing to be challenged here is that do all offensive acts carry the same probability of inciting violence? If I offend Paul from my work because I thought his car was ugly is this likely to cause violence? In that case many people would say Paul is in the wrong if he reacted violently to that remark even though it could be classed as offensive.
We should take a step back and justify why harm and violence are bad things in the first place. Mill argued that freedom should be the basis of a society and this should be in the form of a democracy because no absolute ruler is infallible and knows exactly how a human society should live. People should be able to experiment with their lives as they wish and he argues that this will lead to a diverse society where people will find their own happiness, will take different paths to finding what is true.
To avoid a complete anarchy he invoked the harm principle which stops other people impinging the freedoms of others through the medium of physical harm. If I hurt you I violated your freedom to be harm free or injury free etc. through non-consenting harm I am in a sense minimizing your freedom and this jeopardises the core values of society.
This value of freedom isn't picked out of thin air though. Mill used a utility argument to basically say that as humans are fallible (even scientists) and we do not know the best way to live a life it would be easier and more efficient if many people just experimented on their own accord. If there was no freedom but just a complete absolute ruler where everyone lived the same lives this might not be the best way to live as the ruler is finitely intelligent and may be wrong. So instead of wasting time all living the same lives we should all live different lives.
So going back to our argument then offensive speech that incites violence should be made illegal but not all offensive speech should be banned. This is because we are all fallible and if we cannot challenge and stimulate debate with one another then how can society progress? How can the civilians decide for themselves how to improve their health, wealth and happiness if they are protected from differing and potentially contradicting views just because they might get offended and get angry. As the society is a democratic one and the government cannot be fully relied on for generating new ideas it is essential that diverse civilians debate with one another on the ideas they believe to be true and useful.
There needs to be a compromise. This is a hard topic to think about and legally it is sometimes done on a case by case basis, there is no universally agreed way to approach the line at which the apparent harm principle acts.
Throughout this debate however we have assumed that being offended is somehow pressed upon us, that we are forced into this emotional mental state without a choice. However I am going to argue that people can make a concious choice to be offended or not and with choice comes a way out of the harm principle for offensive remarks. As the state under the guidance of the harm principle can only exercise power on an individual if he restricts the freedom of another without their consent.
Eradicating the debate all together and defending all free speech
I like the harm principle. It makes sense. It makes sense because at its foundations it takes into account our own fallibility, the ability to test and try, gives power to individuals and allows them to develop in their own way. It implies that any dictatorship will fail over time and lead to a non progressive state whose citizens are not given their own volition to develop physically and intellectually ( I say volition as some choose to run their life into ruin). Most modern democracies use the harm principle in developing laws, some still have mountains to climb in applying it to all aspects of life however. So we will accept the harm principle as something that should be implemented in society and it represents a protection of individuals physical freedom.
Going back to the racial hate speech...the angry mob will no doubt want to commit violence to stop me but surely they can't cause harm to me because they would be restricting my freedom without my consent. By standing and shouting racial hate speech am I harming them? Well I am not restricting their freedom physically as they can still move around as they please and they can also move away to stop hearing me. So it seems I am not harming them at all because they have a choice to be here or not. If they feel negatively towards me then so what they can choose to be here listening to me. Also I think they shouldn't really feel anything towards my speech and they can choose how they feel.
Let me elaborate. If someone calls you names at school like fatty or shorty you might choose to feel angry... but why? All you should be worried about is if what they say is true or not... if it is true then they are simply stating a fact and what I do with facts is my own choice, there is no use in reacting emotionally to facts. If what they say is false then it doesn't matter, they are wrong and falsehoods don't apply to the real world. So really any emotional reaction to any remark is a choice and is unnecessary. Of course you can have the freedom to react emotionally to statements but any grief caused by that reaction is of your doing.
When I talk about truth and false I am working within the confines of analytical and empirical truth. If something is true mathematically (analytically) then it's true due to the axioms of the system, if something is true scientifically (empirically) then there is substantial evidence to the claim being put forward.... if you cannot decide there and then if something is empirically true you should reserve judgement.
So any offensive remark can be allowed because we have a choice to how we react to such remarks. Also we should only really be concerned with the validity of the remarks. If there is a homophobic parade shouting 'God Hates FAGS!' or 'Gays Are Stupid!' then we can just say well there is no evidence for God so the first one is false or we should reserve judgement (for those agnostics and really bad scientists) also there is no evidence showing lower intellectual ability in homosexuals so the second one is false. So these paraders look quite silly shouting false or meaningless statements and we cannot get any use out of them so we should use our freedom to walk straight on by. No harm done either way.
Some people will argue that these remarks are not challenging us in the sense that they can help progress society and these remarks are there just to try and incite violence. However we have already argued against such a response because who are we to say these remarks won't help society when we ourselves are fallible.. if they are shown to be false then that doesn't mean we should ban them... should we ban all false claims according to science? Of course not because science is fallible too but in a 99.9% sort of way i.e. most established theories are assumed to be certain but there is of course a small chance that some experiment in the universe will falsify it.
Also some will question whether we truly can choose to not be in an emotional state or not. Well I think because we have evolved in a certain way it may seem like this, our instincts are strong. However we can train ourselves easily to become emotionally disciplined and I think most people can control how they think. Of course we can be manipulated visually and audibly but we can choose the way we feel or at least act.
This part of the argument is the most controversial as modern science cannot really state exactly the proportion of control we have over our emotions. I believe that most medically and mentally healthy or non deficient adults are responsible for their actions and really only explicit physical manipulation can cause another human to commit harm which is itself a harm.
So allowing all speech even if it is false or appears to have no value to society should still be allowed to be spoken because they do not cause harm in the sense of restricting freedoms and they are not responsible for others causing harm. Only the human or being doing the directing harming is responsible and the state has the right to exert power over him to prevent further harm.