That’s offensive! So what?

There seem to have been a number of incidents recently where one person has said something that others took offence to which have made it into the news. Some of these cases involve people expressing their opinion but most concern inappropriate jokes. I have some concerns that, given the ability of social media to find things to take offence to and the amount of pressure that can be levied with it, we are heading towards a dangerous situation where it will be safe only to voice the most popular opinions or tell the most politically correct jokes.

At times, the apparent need to get offended gets justified in the most ridiculous ways, as shown here in South Africa. I would encourage everyone to read the Broacasting Complaints Commission of South Africa’s (BCCSA) findings with regards to “jou ma se paw paw” that was said on Heart 104.9FM. A complaint was made after a DJ said “jou ma se paw paw,” which translates to “your mother’s paw paw.” Fairly inoffensive. The problem is that “jou ma se poes,” which translates to “your mother’s cunt” is a common insult. The complainant said that by using something similar it is an attack on women’s dignity and encourages sexism.

Against all common sense the complaint was upheld! Although the BCCSA only reprimanded the broadcaster and found the words did not amount to advocacy of hatred, they , somehow, concluded that:

The words “Jou ma se paw-paw” are grossly offensive within the South African context. They strongly remind of the seriously derogatory original phrase, which need not be repeated here. The words are also, within the same context of children, harmful to children in terms of clause 6(1)

It’s hard to know where to start as the decision is so astounding but perhaps the most important point to note is that a reprimand was issued for saying something that was similar to something offensive. No one actually swore or insulted anyone else. Somehow that is now enough to cause offence. Not only that but it’s harmful to children! It’s hard then to know what is and isn’t acceptable, if just the capacity to remind someone of swearing is going too far. As my dad remarked, it’s now forbidden to say “aunt” on air as it’s “jou ma se suster.” I can only assume we will soon see Jou Ma Se Comedy Club shut down and broadcasts of My Little Pony restricted for language use (see video).

What’s also distressing about this judgement is that at no point has the context in which “jou ma se paw paw” was used been explained. Yet we are supposed to believe, as the BCCSA does, that those words seriously impaired the claimant’s dignity. Strangely enough, the female DJ did not have her dignity impaired and found the joke funny. It’s never explained how one is meant to decide when someone’s dignity has or has not been impaired.

There are countless other examples of offence being taken at jokes, such as Fanie de Villiers’ hairy armpits comment, Justine Sacco’s tweet or the joke about the Glasgow helicopter crash. Over and over, people are taking single comments or inappropriate jokes and blowing them out of all proportion. Outrage is unlikely to be helpful in these situations. People make mistakes, say stupid things or make jokes too soon but other people need to lighten up. It’s just as easy to recognise that people are fallible and stupid and to just let the occasional comment pass. Do people really deserve to lose their jobs over a single misguided remark?

In the US, the most recent incident igniting debates on offence and free speech has revolved around one of the people in the reality TV show Duck Dynasty. When, in an interview with GQ, Phil Robertson was asked what he considered sinful he answered (as described in Wikipedia):

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”—continuing rhetorically, Robertson questioned the appeal of same-sex relationships, particularly amongst men; saying: “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.

Later in the same interview he also made this statement which generated further controversy:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field […] They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! […] Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

Do I agree with him? Absolutely not. He doesn’t sound like a person I would get along with and I doubt we’d see eye-to-eye on many social issues either. However, he’s still entitled to his own views and I think he should be free to express those views. Indeed he has. So far, so good. But expressing his views upset a lot of people and have led to the TV channel suspending him indefinitely from Duck Dynasty. That I have a problem with as he is being punished because his answer to a question differed from what other people think.

Those defending his suspension point out that free speech is about government censorship and does not entitle anyone to a TV show. PZ Meyers shared a comic strip that says, “Free speech doesn’t mean free from consequences. It means you won’t be legally prosecuted for your opinions.” These points are all true, his freedom of speech was not violated in any legal way. However, I do think that the actions taken against him are difficult to align with the spirit of free speech.

Bearing in mind all that was said about free speech above, let’s take a fresh look at something that happened recently in South Africa. At the beginning of this month, the editor of the Cape Times newspaper was fired. This aroused suspicion because, a few days earlier, the front page story had been about a report which described maladministration and unethical conduct by a minister in awarding a multi-million rand tender for fishing boats to a Sekunjalo Investments subsidiary. Sekunjalo Investments were cleared of wrongdoing in the report but are the controlling shareholder of Independent Newspapers who owns the Cape Times. A clear possibility is that the editor was fired because she published the story about the report that made the company look bad.

Hopefully everyone would agree that such a situation is detrimental to our society and journalism. However that should also completely acceptable to those who agree that Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty should be fired. The Cape Times editor exercised her free speech and there were professional consequences. I would say that neither situation is acceptable even though they are both legal. The companies are free to hire and fire who they will but I think those that want a free and open society should look at both these developments with concern. I do not want to live in a society where one runs the risk of losing their job because they say something that others disagree with. In the case of the Cape Times, those stories are what newspapers are there for. In the case of Duck Dynasty, we must accept that people have their own personal views and that that is totally acceptable. His personal views obviously were not a problem for the previous four seasons and do not impact on his ability to do his job.

I think that everyone, but freethinkers and atheists in particular, who will rally for free speech and against offence when it comes to religious matters, need to protect the ability of other people to say their part without a risk to their jobs. As a society we will not progress unless we have people that are willing to push the boundaries, and pushing boundaries will offend some people.

In these cases it’s not the boundaries that are being pushed but it’s humour and the ability to share unpopular views. While we may think some are inappropriate or wrong we should still protect them while remembering that the views we wish to share are not always in the majority. Even in the case of opinions that are racist or homophobic or sexist, the appropriate response is not to silence the voices but to point out the mistakes. If we are correct and our reasoning is sound then there should be no threat from those voices. And if our reasoning is shown to be wanting then we have learned and benefited from the unpopular opinion.

It worries me that the idea of freedom of speech seems to have moved from “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” to “I disapprove of what you say and if you say it anyway you’re on your own.” We don’t have to provide a platform for every crazy view out there but if platforms are increasingly closed off and those who disagree with the majority are punished then how can we truly say there is freedom of speech?


I will be away until the new year so comments from new people will not be approved until I return. There is a talk on offence by Gareth Cliff that was presented at the Free Society Institute conference Thinking Things Through recently. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend as the group I was going to go with ran out of funds at the last minute. You can watch the talks online though.


2 thoughts on “That’s offensive! So what?

  1. Pingback: E&R is three years old! | Evidence & Reason

  2. Pingback: If not free speech then what? | Evidence & Reason

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