No right not to be offended

Letter by Les May, Rochdale

ImageMy attention has been drawn to the letter by Clare Bonetree (PN 2620 – 2621).

If free speech means anything it means having the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Increasingly we have people trying to grab the moral high ground by claiming that something they read or hear, and do not like, is racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, patriarchal or in the latest catch all phrase, ‘hate speech’, and should not be said.

These terms have become the first response of people who seem to think they have the right never to be offended, but are seemingly unwilling to engage in any kind of debate which might challenge their perceptions. It is not just ‘activist’ groups which behave like this, it is the default position of many columnists in the mainstream press.

In my life, I have met very few people whose words meet any objective criterion which would justify my applying any of these terms to them as a person.

The consequences for anyone so branded can be severe and have included ostracism, suspension from employment, loss of livelihood and, in some circles, violence. I refuse to casually label people in this way just because I do not agree with something they have said or written, or because it is an easy way to demonstrate a personal commitment to social justice.

A society is diverse if its people are tolerant enough to accept that others have a right to hold and express different views. Free debate is an expression of that diversity and tolerance. A society where some groups expect their views to be privileged, and the rest of us to sing from their hymn sheet or not sing at all, lacks both diversity and tolerance.