A few thoughts on the freedom to offend

Free Speech text overlaid on a microphone

The freedom to offend is desperately needed because when any idea is immune to criticism, this is a step in a horrible direction. I don't think I have to persuade anyone to take this view. We should not be quiet about things that are currently bad in society and the ideas that drive them in the effort to get everyone to just get along.

There are definitely certain ideas that are, dare I say - objectively bad and we need to be able to call them out. That much is certain.

But! There is a point when the offence crosses the line into harm. And this is the line when the government should act. As John Stuart Mill argued, "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."

I would probably disagree there because then you cannot defend motorcycle helmets and seatbelts and there I feel that the state is allowed to exercise its power based on various reasons which are not the topic of this post.

Anyway to continue, is there a point when the freedom to offend starts to spill over into the freedom to harm? I believe that is not so difficult to imagine. Words matter. They have an impact on us. Words can lead to suicides. IMO this cause and effect effectively should still *not* give the state the right to censor hateful speech directed not only towards an idea but towards characteristics people cannot change. Even with evidence that repeatedly offending a group of people could lead individuals to really bad consequences, there seems to me that the threat is not immediate enough to warrant state censorship. Only when the harm is imminent, only when speech is used to cause direct harm - as the famous line says - the rule of yelling 'fire' in a crowded theatre and when the calls to violence are direct and effective should the state interfere.

But we're at the limit here. Just because a state should not censor such ideas, that does not mean that private companies and individuals need to offer a platform to those ideas. Imagine that you own a yard. Are you required to make that yard available just to anyone who wishes to use it for their gathering?

Freedom of speech does not mean you are guaranteed a platform

Clearly, freedom to offend is misunderstood. It does not mean absolute freedom to threaten anyone without any repercussions whatsoever. It does also not mean that Facebook or Twitter being private companies are required to give you a platform. It does not mean YouTube has to allow anti-vax content to be regurgitated for money endlessly.

So, what I am saying is - if you own a blog or manage a FB page don't feel you shouldn't ever delete a comment. And if you choose to leave them, you do not have to entertain every bad idea directly. You can deal with it on your terms - for example, make a new post about the issue.

You also do not have to feel extra bad about it. Free speech is grossly misunderstood today and there are a lot of people feel entitled to simply come and take a dump, pardon my French, on your work or on minorities or women or whoever they do not personally like and move along. They are not interested in a meaningful conversation.

Whenever you see a criticism of anything without any suggestion what should be done about it, be careful. It's possibly a smear attempt and you should not take it at face value.

The right criticizes but does not offer their own narrative. For example, they criticise feminism but do not offer their way to achieve equality. And if equality is not their goal what is the goal?

The goal is it seems to gain more followers who want to feel better by 'owning the libs' to mask their own insecurities. But that is not all - the goal is often too 'controversial' to say in order not to alienate potential members at the beginning but in order to radicalize them one step at the time. Similar to ISIS, really.

And if you are the one doing the offending, I suggest you have a bit of personal responsibility. Women are disadvantaged partially because stereotypes are reinforced carelessly. LGBT persons are depressed because of constant bashing and mocking of their lifestyle. These are real consequences. If you feel that you need to offend, I suggest that you stick to ideas - liberalism, conservatism, communism, religion, economic theories, etc. It is our duty as citizens of the web to enable meaningful discussions. Offending people on basis of things they cannot change - being gay or straight, or black might do the job - you might 'win' because your opponent decides you're not worthy, but it is ultimately a pathetic victory.

We all should be better than that.

Further reading: The First Amendment doesn't guarantee you the rights you think it does on CNN

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