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Hypersensitivity perverts ethics and hardwon freedoms
by Graeme J. Davidson,
8 March 2008

To have any ethical credibility, the offence caused has to wrong people. That includes deceiving, slandering, denigrating or persecuting them by inciting discrimination or even hatred and violence against them.

... I’ve had a letter telling me that a couple of my Religion and Ethics columns have caused offence to some. The puzzling thing, though, is that none of those offended has given reasons why. Perhaps they think it’s enough to say, “I’m offended”, and then expect me to back off taking a stance they don’t like.
But aren’t “I’m offended” and that other cliché, “You’re being negative”, self-serving excuses to exert power and gag open debate?
They’re typical of the emotional pressure and abuse editors face when they go to print on controversial issues.
Whatever happened to "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (attributed to Voltaire but actually said by Evelyn Beatrice Hall)? It’s buried under our current obsession with not giving offence. Such hypersensitivity perverts ethics so that our hard won principles of freedom and fairness suffer.
In these days of multi-cultural societies and global communications, it’s easy enough to offend and we are easily offended – sometimes to violence. The Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, lectures on Islam by the Pope and on Sharia Law by the Archbishop of Canterbury and British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s antics as the fictional journalist, Borat from Kazakhstan, are a few recent examples. Ten years ago, the British artwork Virgin in a Condom offended many at the opening of Te Papa.
At least the Pope and the Archbishop didn’t intend to offend and were genuinely surprised by reactions to ideas they considered inoffensive in the context they expressed them. That kind of unintentional offending could happen to any of us, like serving meat to someone you don’t know opposes the killing of animals. Instead of over-reacting, it’s only fair in these cases for those who are offended to explain respectfully why they take umbrage.
The Borat film, which grossed over US$260 million, and the Mohammed cartoons aimed to offend: Borat to entertain through gratuitous offence and ridicule, the cartoons to demonstrate how there’s a double standard in the West over offending people’s religious sensibilities. And, though it looked very much like it was cynically exhibited to offend Catholics, the Virgin in a Condom was explained as the artist shocking us into thinking about religious values.
Apparently, anything – including blatant double standards about what we regard as offensive – can be justified in the name of art. Our Advertising Standards Authority says advertisements shouldn’t contain anything “which in the light of generally prevailing community standards is likely to cause serious or widespread offence”. You can display the Virgin in a Condom as an artwork and cause serious widespread offence, but you can’t advertise condoms or statues of the Virgin Mary that way.
The fact is that someone somewhere will be offended by what you believe, do or say. They’re going to find your views on religion, politics, sex, fashion, art, culture or your garden gnome offensive. One woman even told me how terribly offended she was by a Jane Austen quotation at the end of an email. She said it was sexual harassment when what I think she meant was that it wasn’t feminist enough for her. She had trivialised offensiveness.
To have any ethical credibility, the offence caused has to wrong people. That includes deceiving, slandering, denigrating or persecuting them by inciting discrimination or even hatred and violence against them. That is particularly so for those who are vulnerable or unable to stand up for themselves. Some of Borat’s victims felt vulnerable, misled and maligned, while many Muslims believe that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses incited hatred by using abusive words against Islam.
I certainly haven’t wronged people or incited discrimination or hatred in this column. I have merely put forward a point of view, with which you are free to agree or disagree. And if you find my views offensive, so be it. George Orwell says it best: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.



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