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Offence is taken, not given

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Tuesday, 25 February 2014


Nobody forces us to fall in love or to feel happy or sad. Why then do we blame others when we take offence? If we are responsible for our feelings in some cases, surely we are responsible in all cases.

In the Australian vernacular, being called a bastard can be intended as a serious insult, a minor criticism or a term of endearment, yet someone may find the term offensive irrespective of the intent of the person making the comment.

The same is true when it comes to comments about political beliefs, sexual orientation, appearance, gender identity, age, religious values or innumerable other factors that some claim gives rise to offense. Nobody can say with certainty how a comment might be received.

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In tort and criminal law a person can be liable for all consequences resulting from activities that lead to injury to another person, even if the victim suffers unexpectedly high damage due to a pre-existing vulnerability. Known as the egg shell rule, it means liability may be severe if a person suffers injury as a result of assault or negligence and has a skull as delicate as the shell of an egg.

This relates only to physical injury though, and there is no such rule regarding verbal matters. Nonetheless, there is a growing tendency to attribute blame for the consequences of offence at the feet of those who utter the words irrespective of the circumstances of the person claiming to be offended.

When a UK nurse received a prank call from a Sydney radio station pretending to be the Queen, the immediate response focused on its entertainment value. Yet when the nurse committed suicide, the announcers who made the call were immediately blamed even though the nurse had the psychological equivalent of an egg shell skull, having made two prior suicide attempts.

The Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone because of "race, colour or national or ethnic origin", and yet whether anyone is indeed offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated is up to the receiver of the message. Given an inability to know in advance how the recipient might choose to feel, the only option is to avoid saying anything much at all.

This can have significant consequences for the way we speak. In America, and increasingly now here, it has become customary to wish everyone happy holidays rather than Merry Christmas out of concern that non-Christians may feel offended.

Filmmakers, cartoonists, artists and authors are reluctant to tackle certain subjects, such as the life of Mohammed, because individuals or groups claim to be offended, sometimes even responding with violence.

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Similar to anger, frustration and loneliness, feeling offended is an emotion. But while they can be powerful, emotions are within our control. Apart from clinical depression perhaps, none is involuntary.

Even when a comment is intended to be hurtful, or there is indifference as to whether hurt is caused, how we respond depends on the core beliefs we have accumulated over a lifetime. Sometimes these are so odd that the most benign comment can arouse offence.

Because there is no cause and effect, the right of free speech does not require the right to offend. That does not mean we should ignore cultural norms like good manners and consideration for the feelings of others, but we do not need the law to tell us that the wrong response to the question 'does my bum look big in this?' can lead to problems.

The very notion that someone else can govern the way we feel diminishes our independence and self-ownership. If nobody can force us to think in a particular way, nobody can compel us to feel offended.

No matter how bigoted, ill-informed or obnoxious, our reaction to someone else's words is always up to us. Unless words are coercive, by threatening, tricking or forcing us to do something against our will, we are responsible for how they are received. If we feel offended, we have the option of choosing another feeling.

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.



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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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