Bill Muehlenberg

On the right to offend

I think I should have the right to offend. There, I said it. Are you offended by that? Tough beans. If people think they have some sort of right not to be offended, then I will claim a right to offend. Both claims are equally silly, so I might as well play the game too.

Indeed, since we seem to be in the business of pulling rights out of the hat, then let’s keep going with this foolishness. If inalienable characteristics are something which should be sacrosanct and free of all cause of offence, then I demand a new law be passed. Call it the Ugliness Vilification Act.

You see, I have never been blessed with movie star good looks. I have always been just plain, well, plain, all my life. And because of that I have known all sorts of ridicule, contempt and abuse for much of my life. It has not been pleasant, but I have had to learn to live with it. It never really occurred to me that it should be against the law.

But if my innate lack of physical beauty is something I cannot do much about, I suppose I could make a case for having a law enacted to protect me from being offended or ridiculed on the basis of my looks. It makes about as much sense as so many other similar laws.

Indeed, studies have even demonstrated time and time again that good looking people are more likely to get better marks in schools, get better and higher paying jobs, and be the objects of all sorts of preferential treatment. Hey, it sounds like I got a case on my hands. We need not only anti-ugly discrimination laws, but some affirmative action here as well.

Let’s sue Hollywood, Madison Avenue and all those other places which regularly discriminate against ugly people as they make use of only good looking folks. Indeed, let’s sue the beauty pageants for their gross discrimination against us ugly people. We should demand some quotas here: for every beautiful woman who is allowed to enter a pageant, three ugly ones should be accepted as well.

Let’s put an end to this unjust inequality and discrimination. After all, we don’t want to offend anyone now do we? But that is just what so much of our discrimination and vilification legislation seeks to do: ensure that certain groups are not offended.

The federal Racial Discrimination Act, like the Victorian Racial and Religious Vilification Act, may have been set up with the best of intentions. But both seem to increasingly be little more than clubs with which to clobber those who do not hold to acceptable views on controversial issues.

For example, the judge in the Andrew Bolt case said this: “I am satisfied that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles.”

But can we not say this about countless other writings? The cases would be endless. A gung-ho misotheist tract penned by angry atheists would also have resulted in people – in this case, theists and Christians – being “offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated”.

The reverse is true as well. For a Christian to aver that God exists and all men must bow before him will likely cause plenty of secularists and atheists real angst; they would most likely be “offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated” by such remarks.

A Muslim would likewise be “offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated” when a Christian proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God and the only way to the Father. So do we pass laws making all Christian evangelism illegal so as not to offend Muslims?

One can see just how ridiculous this entire notion is of declaring that people have a right not to be offended. The truth is, I am probably offended twenty times a day, as would be most people. I was offended when I heard this incredible ruling in the Bolt case. Does that mean there should be a law passed making it illegal for judges to make dumb decisions which might offend others?

I am offended when I can’t easily find a Dr Pepper in Australia. OK, let’s pass another law then. I am offended when Collingwood wins anytime, anywhere. So when does the law banning the Magpies come into effect? I am offended when angry activists regularly abuse me and vilify me. But for some reason there seems to be no law against that.

Michelle Malkin in the US has written about this nonsense, and she even singles out the Bolt case here: “When I commented about the court case on Twitter tonight, a liberal Australian wrote to me: ‘So you think it’s right for headlines such as ‘White fellas in the black’ to be used? What if your Asianness was questioned?’ To which I replied: ‘People question my Asianness every damned day. So what? Thank God it’s not a CRIME here in America.”

Exactly. As Tony Abbott said of the ruling, “We should never do anything in this country which restricts the sacred principle of free speech. And free speech means the right of people to say what you don’t like, not just the right of people to say what you do like.”

This ruling will just result in more division and enmity, not in unity and reconciliation. As John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs said, “It’s going to have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and it’s more likely to create racial intolerance. If people debate ideas, then racial intolerance will be unfounded but this is likely to drive opinions underground. Racial intolerance will thrive if we don’t have a free society.”

Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes said in a speech in June that the Racial Discrimination Act was an “Orwellian law that, probably, should not be there.” He also said, “I am concerned that people in some of the circles I mix, on my side of politics, increasingly seem to think that they should write, or invoke, or resurrect, laws that will shut Andrew Bolt up. A democracy is at the very least a free marketplace of ideas, and a free marketplace of arguments against those ideas. But it is never, never, a stifling or a suffocation of ideas.”

Former Labor Minister Gary Johns said this: “The provisions of the act used to silence Bolt are bad law. The provisions inserted by the Racial Hatred Act 1995 were strongly opposed by the Coalition on the grounds that it might impinge free speech. They have now done so.”

Or as one legal affairs writer put it, “The court’s ‘Bolt principle’ will encourage Australians to see themselves as a nation of tribes – a collection of protected species who are too fragile to cope with robust public discourse. Unless this is overturned on appeal, it will divide the nation. Aborigines should be outraged that they have been associated with this patronising ruling. But their anger is best directed towards the law, not Justice Mordecai Bromberg.”

So it seems many people – from all political persuasions – find this ruling to be quite disturbing, to say the least. It really is a blow against freedom of speech, and it really is a perfect illustration of how dumb it is to suppose that anyone can claim some sort of right to not be offended.

And if what I just said offends you, then just sue me already.

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