The right to offend: crucial to free speech

published Apr 17, 2007, last modified Jun 26, 2013

I contend we all should have the right to offend. Why?

I bet you're wondering why I just said that.

The right to offend. It's a contentious proposition. Almost nobody enjoys being offended, whether in private or in public. So why should we have a right to offend? What's so defensible about that?

Imagine someone coming to your house and shooting you as you exit from the front door, just because you said something that someone else didn't like.

Hey, it has happened before. And if you're a blogger, I bet you've already offended someone with your writings. Hopefully you haven't gotten death threats yet (I have).

Now, most of us would agree that the hypothetical shooter is dead wrong in shooting you. But why is he wrong, and why do we think that? Doesn't he have a right to punish people who offend him and his sensitivities?

Let's find out why he doesn't.

So why should we tolerate offensive speech?

Salman Rushdie said it well:

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.)

The right to offend is not about humor. It's not about anarchy. It's not about what I feel like doing, without consequences. Believe it or not, it's about defending the right to tell the truth -- which is necessary for progress of society.

The right to say these things is called freedom of speech, and is one of the cornerstones of a free society.

Throughout human history, we've had a lot of "inconvenient" truths, and saying them out loud have cost the lives of countless martyrs. Modern society is no different, with the concession that today it's less likely -- but still possible -- to be killed by saying something offensive.

Moreover, this right extends beyond the mere possibility of stating verifiable truths. Since we express what we think in countless ways (such as humor, offensive statements, ironic quips), you need to have a right to say things in these ways as well.

Furthermore, what the majority of society may understand as being "true" is constantly being proven wrong. That's why we must have a right to say things that others will regard as blatantly wrong, even if these things are offensive.

And that's why I have the right to say retards are funny, God doesn't exist, and one of my exes is a lie manufacturing machine. Whether they are true or not, and, more importantly, regardless if I offend you or not.

I have the right to ridicule your religion, your beliefs, your ideas, and even you. Yes, you read that right.

The counterpart: the right to be offended

Evidently, if we're to gain (or, more appropriately, preserve) this right, we need to have the right to be offended. Call it eye for an eye if you want; I'll call it tolerance.

What does it mean? It means that, if I say something that offends you, you can only respond with speech. You cannot retaliate with your fists, a knife, or a bullet. Why? Because you've accepted (or, more likely, forced by society into accepting) that you have a right to offend as well, and you are also granted protection against your integrity.

Read again: you may not take the matter in your own hands. This is a recognized fact of modern society law: If I insult you publicly, you cannot shoot me or beat me up. Not unless you like going to prison.

(However, if you try to hit me, I am entitled to use the same force to stop you. But that's a subject for a different post.)

That's absolute tolerance.

But absolute tolerance doesn't work in the real world

Naturally, that doesn't exactly work in a world where words have different leverage depending on their source. Something written about me in a newspaper will carry a bit more weight than what I've written on this blog.

Thus, lies created to ruin someone's life need to be forbidden. Modern society law comes to the rescue to draw a line between what's acceptable and what isn't.

So where do we draw the line?

We draw the line on the character of the speech. The line is drawn where speech turns from just offensive into libellous.

Most of you would be surprised to learn that, in matters of speech, offensive is not equal to libellous. Key to determining if speech is libellous are two factors:

  1. Said speech contains a significant amount of unfalsifiable statements -- lies, and accusations that cannot be positively proved.
  2. Said speech is designed expressly with the intent to harm someone's reputation. For example, when a reasonable person is expected to believe the speech to be true.
    In all fairness, this rule does not apply here in Ecuador, but the civilized world does apply this rule.

Both assertions must be satisfied before judging speech to be libellous. Your feelings about you being offended do not matter at all when judging speech.

In effect:

  • if a statement is true, then it is not libellous
  • if a statement is hardly likely to be believed, it's not libellous
  • if a statement wasn't made with the purpose to harm someone, it's not libellous

For example: let's suppose I call you a fucking bitch. If what I said is hardly likely to be believed, or it's true (because, uhm, you collect money for sex), then I have the right to say that. (Fortunately) Thanks to this, most insults are protected speech, whether you like it or not.

But if:

  1. I called you gay,
  2. you were reasonably gay-mannered,
  3. I have a grudge against you,
  4. I said the statement in a manner that negatively affects what lots of other people think about you,
  5. I couldn't prove that statement, and
  6. you really wanted to put me in prison

I could end up in the arms of my future cellmate.

So, can I threaten someone with death?

No. That is not kosher.

OK, the "kosher" joke was pushing it. But you cannot threaten someone with physical injury or death.

Different types of speech are afforded different levels of protection. It just so happens that death threats are a type of speech that is outlawed -- we've already seen other types of forbidden speech. In the scale of "useful speech", death threats rank at the bottom, and there's nothing defensible about them.

Thus, it's a crime and it's expressly not protected by free speech because a death threat inflicts direct, grave emotional distress in a person. Moreover, death threats are, by modern judicial standards, expressly outlawed and categorized as a serious crime, right there with theft, because it usually is used to prevent others from exercising their right to free speech. Yes, we forbid certain types of speech to let other, more productive types of speech flourish.

Now, you may be thinking: Hey, but just yesterday you called me a whore, and that inflicted emotional distress on me. If you were distressed at that, I suggest you reevaluate how thick your proverbial skin is, because you got nothin' on the people who have received death threats. After all, there might be something productive about me calling you a whore.

And that's what free speech is about

Remember this. The next time someone offends you, you don't get to call "mommy" when someone offends you. You have to shut up, put up and respond in kind. And you better develop thick skin, because offenses are a part of everyday's life.

And sure, there are animals out there who will feel offended by you and think they're entitled to payback in blood.

But that's why we have guns.