In defence of the right to offend

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Evelyn Hall on Voltaire

A disturbing trend has emerged amongst those who identify with progressive politics. It is a preoccupation with the stifling of humour that is perceived as discriminatory – be it of the racial, sexual or religious persuasion. This preoccupation is seen in the ardent defence of the s18C provision of the Racial Discrimination Act – the “Bolt Laws”. It is also seen on university campuses across Australia, and in the progressive media.

The premise of this argument is that offensive humour, be it in jest or otherwise, normalises discriminatory attitudes, and consequently, should be banned. Sociologists have described this as an example of “Social Dominance Theory”, whereby prejudicial social attitudes result in the subjugation of certain minority groups in society. It has also been identified in other forms as the “Prejudiced Norm Theory”, which suggests that “disparagement humour” increases the tolerance of discrimination against the subjects of that humour.

There are two problems with the logic employed by this argument. First, it assumes that the airing of prejudicial opinions normalises them. Second, it leads to the conclusion that stifling these opinions will reduce the level of prejudice in society. But perhaps most importantly, it ignores our fundamental right to voice our opinions, however distasteful to others they may be.

Finding a racist or sexist joke funny may well indicate that you hold similar deep-seated views, but the sharing of that joke does nothing to enforce or validate those views. Offensive jokes are the result of prejudicial attitudes in society; they do not, however, cause those views. Those attitudes were formed as a result of a knowledge deficit – a stalwart perception held of a group unaffected by facts or logic. Offensive humour is unlikely to be the source of those types of beliefs. It is implausible to suppose that offensive jokes will encourage people who do not hold prejudicial attitudes to begin forming their own.

Focusing on the result of prejudicial attitudes diverts attention from examining the source of those views. Banning the voicing of offensive humour in public arenas does nothing to change the prejudicial attitudes that formed them. Furthermore, it unnecessarily antagonises those who hold these views. Changing their opinion is a far less likely prospect if they perceive their rights as being infringed.

If the goal is to stamp out discriminatory attitudes, then focus should be directed to the causes of prejudice, rather than its end product. Allowing an open discourse has never prevented societal change from the ground up – see, for example, our changing attitudes to Indigenous Australians or non-Anglo immigrants post-World War II.

Most importantly, however, we should not ban speech because we deem it morally repugnant. In a fair and egalitarian society, matters of opinion cannot be objectively judged. Consequently, no attempt should be made to do so. It is principally inconsistent to allow the majority to freely speak their mind, but deny that same right to a minority. Our right to free speech allows for all views to be discussed openly. It enriches society, and encourages debate. Laws like s18C only serve to prevent prejudicial views being debated in an open forum, where their merit or lack thereof can be assessed.

If the goal is to tackle prejudice head on, it is better to see its true face, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.

Christopher Wong