Foregoing the Right to Offend

Approaching the consideration of offensive utterances as a matter of rights leaves us with major problems. An editorial in Saturday’s edition of The Irish Times exposes them.

In the week Paris marked the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre Belfast also saw a small, welcome, not entirely unrelated, blow struck for free speech. In both cases the casus belli was the disputed right to grievously offend, specifically Muslims.

Whenever assertions of rights are made, there is often a counter assertion of responsibilities. This appears to be absent in this case and that’s a problem.

Pastor James McConnell (78) was acquitted on charges under the 2003 Communications Act of sending “a grossly offensive message” on the internet in May last year, a sermon from his Pentecostal church, the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, describing Islam as “satanic” and “spawned in hell”.

The utterances of the Pastor are regarded by his supporters as the words of a conviction preacher. It is his conviction which impels him to use this language. In the quotations from his remarks, replace the word ‘Islam’ with ‘Christianity,’ the word ‘Muslim’ with ‘Christian,’ and they remain offensive. Other words may be inserted to the same effect. It might be said that the Pastor’s words are, at best, ill-considered and problematic.

Je suis Charlie - HeadStuff.org
Image source

. what the pastor was being prosecuted for was his comment damning all Muslims as untrustworthy: “People say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them”. Unpleasant, and clearly a manifestation of prejudice, if not bigotry, such words are akin to those of Marine Le Pen who was also cleared in December of charges of incitement to hatred after comparing Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation of France.

Human history has many instances of people of religious and secular beliefs speaking trenchantly and publicly, out of their convictions. A reflection on those people will readily throw up considerations of who benefits from such words.[pullquote]Human history has many instances of people of religious and secular beliefs speaking trenchantly and publicly, out of their convictions.[/pullquote]

The Pastor is reported to have said, in the aftermath of his acquittal, that he would reconsider such words again, not because he feels he does not have the right – the courts have legally vindicated him – but because he might find a better way to express his convictions. Better in the sense of being more useful, beneficial and helpful to us all. And, from in his own perspective, more in keeping with the divine edict to ‘love they neighbour as thyself.’

Sometimes, necessarily, we pay for such largesse by allowing the regrettable fanning of sectarian fires, or the right to cry fire in a crowded room. Or speech verging on defamation.

The assertion that sectarian strife may be a reasonable price to pay for the right to be offensive in this manner is dangerous. The question is begged as to who is being referred to with the word ‘we’ in the quotation above. Are the sectarian fires to be ‘their’ problem?

Pastor James McConnell - HeadStuff.org
Pastor James McConnell, image source

But if we are not to ban offensive speech, we are not required to offer it a platform. Newspapers and broadcasters in a free society remain free not to publish (…) (It is rightly the latter, in buying or tuning in to media outlets, who) must make the choices which will determine how civilised debate will be conducted. Not the courts, regulators, overzealous prosecutors, politically-correct civil society groups, or even over-prescriptive press councils.

[pullquote]The appeal to the concept of a free society, while genuine, must be considered in circumstances where great difference exists between peoples.[/pullquote]

The appeal to the concept of a free society, while genuine, must be considered in circumstances where great difference exists between peoples, where the violence of poverty and war is an integral part of human commerce and where inequalities cause huge problems.

Is there a responsibility on people of conviction, in particular those who have significant public platforms such as the Pastor, to bring a measure of sensitivity and compassion to all utterances?

Or are we as knavish as Hamlet says?

I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my
beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give
them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I
do, crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all;
believe none of us.

Hamlet - HeadStuff.org
Image via Rank/Film stills

Such fellows as I, in the throes of our arrant knavery, could usefully consider, with sensitivity and compassion, as well as conviction, our responsibilities in all the public utterances we make.

Featured image source.

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