The privilege in not finding things offensive

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

It’s easy to forget that arguments in favour of unfettered free speech often come from positions of privilege. That privilege could be economic, social or educational, but whatever its origin, the result can be a bewilderment at the thought that anybody could find mere words offensive enough to censure.

I’ve made this sort of case before, defending various people and a wide range of utterances – from Floyd Shivambu and Kuli Roberts to Annelie Botes. A consistent thread in those columns has been that we learn nothing by silencing odious voices – that it’s only through being exposed to opinions that make us uncomfortable that we develop defences against them.

Again, it’s easy for some of us to say these sorts of things. It’s easy for me. For others it’s less so, especially if you might have been subjected to years or generations of abuse. So the idealism of a position – mine, broadly speaking – which entails hoping that society will at some point grow up and learn to deal with offence can easily seem rather smug – not to mention condescending.

However, it remains paternalistic to impose constraints on what we’re allowed to read and hear when those constraints are intended to protect us from offence. We don’t have the right to be shielded from all potential offence, even if there may be cases where the offence is simply gratuitous rather than potentially instructive (even if not instructive to the target of the offensive claim, then to the wider audience that is exposed to it).

But conclusions regarding whether a particular case intends gratuitous offence or not are subjective ones, also complicated by the emotive nature of many such cases. A recent case involved an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) decision against River’s Church, who were instructed to take a billboard down following a complaint by Eugene Gerber.

Gerber is reported as saying that the “billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid”. In comments to an article addressing the judgement and the apparent contradiction of an atheist (where atheists often defend their right to offend the religious), Gerber clarified his motivation for the complaint, saying:

During our darker apartheid years, it was ultimately the reaction and pressure from the international community that allowed us to move into a democratic society. And now, as our free speech rights are dying a slow death in South Africa, we once again need the world to take note and join our outcry.

So one atheist in South Africa gets a Christian billboard taken down, and blogs all over the world (atheist and Christian alike) are up in arms about my infringement on free speech. Yet, about a month ago, a Christian had a television commercial taken off air for exactly the same reason, and not even a peep on the internet about free speech. My options were simple, impede on their free speech but the get the message out there that our country needs help, or let them have their billboard and sit back and watch free speech decline. The latter was simply unacceptable.

So as long as their [sic] are people out there who voice the concern at me being able to have a billboard removed, I think I made the right choice. Hopefully the next headline you read is ‘Atheist tries in vain to have billboard removed’.

Limiting free speech for the sake of protecting it is certainly counter-intuitive, yet not obviously mistaken. Gerber could have been attempting to highlight how easily claims of being offended can result in limitations on freedom of speech, thus gesturing at a broader, perhaps systemic problem. But the evidence for this motivation is sketchy – not only because examples of these sorts of limiting moves are easy to find, but also because he appears to be wrong about the facts.

Assuming that the television commercial Gerber is referring to is Unilever’s Axe Excite advertisement, featuring “super-hot angels crashing to Earth” then smashing their halos in order to (presumably) be able to “know” the man wearing the deodorant in question, it’s simply not true that this ASA decision went unnoticed. My browser bookmarks include five newspaper articles and three blog posts – most of them explicitly concerned with whether the ASA was being overly sensitive towards claims of offence.

Just as with the Axe advertisement, one can ask whether the River’s Church billboard was sufficiently offensive to merit censure. While these are subjective judgements, a broader question is whether the ASA should even be placed in a position of needing to make them – especially if they are placed in this position by those who regularly protest the hypersensitivity of others to criticism.

The ASA ruling on the billboard was at least consistent with the Axe ruling. But if a depiction of an atheist having an “empty head” (itself a subjective reading – I’d be happy to entertain the charitable possibility that this image depicts a head lacking in certain beliefs) or believing that they are accidents now meets a threshold of unacceptable offence, then that threshold is far too low.

Regulation of advertisements that make false claims is certainly merited. But in this case, as a colleague (and atheist) pointed out, many of us might know as fact that we are accidents. As for having empty heads, well, as Psalm 14.1 reminds us “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” If a billboard isn’t allowed to call unbelievers fools (on the uncharitable, and more plausible reading), would Gerber now have us petitioning for the Bible to be withdrawn from sale, or edited to remove content offensive to atheists?

Gerber’s complaint to the ASA was hypersensitive and misguided, in that it serves to undermine free speech arguments in more typical cases involving things like blasphemy. But as I’ve indicated, some feel better equipped to shrug off insults than others, and cases like these are thin ends of very thick wedges. Speech (and advertisements are of course a complicated example of speech) can create a climate of hostility, serving as propaganda for encouraging negative attitudes towards certain groups.

I do still hope that we can learn to deal with these insults without feeling the need to run to the courts or the ASA for protection. It remains true that any restrictions on free speech on the basis of offence put us on an unprincipled and very slippery slope. And, as I’ve argued before, freedom to cause offence doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for us to do. Somehow, though, I wish we could find a mechanism to shut some people up – but only the deserving ones, of course.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.