The Right To Insult and Offend

The far right coalition, currently in power in Australia, along with a few ultra-right-wing racist and “family” party politicians, occasionally rant about “political correctness”. Sometimes they even try to change the hate speech laws because they say it is a freedom of speech issue and everyone “should have the right to be offensive” if they choose (of course, they never mention changes to the libel laws which, generally, protect privileged white guys). Other right wing politicians around the world also seem to find political correctness an unbearable burden. Donald Trump, for example, seems to see it as a communist plot to bring down America.

Here in Australia, they are trying again to water down the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act by changing the provisions in section 18C so that language which is offensive or insulting to racial groups should be allowed. Apparently, protecting minorities (and women, by the way) from vilification is “political correctness gone mad.” They’re all old white guys (or women), of course, and they’re on the telly, the radio and in the Murdoch newspapers right now, arguing that their own right to be offensive and insulting is more important than a racial minority’s right not to be abused and denigrated by them.

Sick, huh? It never ceases to amaze me how white, privileged men just don’t get it when it comes to the harm done by such casual oppression of minorities (and women). Either they are incredibly stupid, so wrapped up in their own egos they can’t grasp the existence of less privileged people, or they are lying bastards who hate all non-white-male people and would like free reign to practice their bigotry.

Not long ago, I was prompted to post about “political correctness” after another flare up of bigotry among our “leaders”. Being PC seems like a generally good thing and the people who violently oppose it (like radio “shock jocks” and Murdoch press journalists) are generally odious people, so it probably is a good thing. However, I spent some time mulling it over and wrote the following, which I repeat here because of its topicality and the clear and present danger that the haters in the Aussie Parliament will finally get their way and sanction racial bigotry (and then sexism).

When we deliberately offend or insult someone, it is an act of aggression. We do it to hurt them.

When we accidentally offend or insult someone, we still hurt them, but it is done out of ignorance, or stupidity, or indifference.

The point of “politically correct” language is mostly to avoid accidental offence, particularly by people in official roles or people with relative power of some other kind. I think most of us would agree that we don’t want to be accidentally offensive. Why would we want that?

Political correctness does not in any way prevent ordinary people from being deliberately offensive. In fact, the more widely adopted politically correct language is, the more offensive certain language becomes. It becomes easier to offend when people live in a society in which accidental offence has been minimised. However, the adoption of politically correct language by organisations and other social groups, does prevent (to some extent) the use of deliberate offensiveness by officials and even members of those groups. Do we think that’s a good thing? Generally, I think we do. Curbing aggression by people with relative power is something that improves all our lives.

Many people chafe under the yoke of such constraints.

Some, I suppose, wish to abuse their power by deliberately offending people. That they are frustrated in this, annoys them.

Some simply do not like the fact that it is pointed out that they are accidentally offending people. They do not see themselves as racist or sexist and resent having it asserted about them.

Some may even be angry because they know full well – when it is pointed out – that they are (accidentally) hurting people and it does not square with their image of themselves as a nice person.

Some are essentially indifferent to the feelings of other people and are angered by any attempt to restrain their behaviour in any way for such a “trivial” reason.

On the whole, therefore, I think politically correct language serves a useful role in creating a more civil society. The constraints it places on the great majority of people (who do not want to be even accidentally abusive) are negligible compared to the considerable harm that can be done by careless – not to mention deliberate – offensiveness.

Racism - it stops with me campaign poster

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