Should people in our multicultural society be protected from
offence? Certainly the government thinks so. It has published the
Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. As front-line workers our
training has been underpinned by an awareness of cultural diversity
and anti-oppressive practice. And rightly so. But equally, being
part of a liberal society, we celebrate our freedoms of expression
and speech. These values often collide.
People choose to be offended. One day, the famous conductor Herbert
von Karajan accidentally knocked into a passer-by who shouted at
him, “Imbecile!” As if returning the introduction Karajan doffed
his hat and replied, “Karajan”.
Rather than accept offence Karajan had reflected it back – using
humour. An American philosopher Lou Marinoff makes the point that
those who are offended play an active role in being offended.
Though you can be harmed without your consent – you are not usually
in a position to accept or reject harm to yourself – the same is
not true of offence. The latter maybe offered but it need not be
accepted. Offence may lead to harm but it is not harmful in
Social care workers have a duty to protect and empower vulnerable
people against bigotry and persecution. Furthermore, repeated
offences can have a cumulative harmful effect. But this shouldn’t
boil over into political correctness that promotes censorship.
Words need to be challenged by using words, not by imposing
Offence is axiomatic in a free society. It goes with the territory.
And with ever increasing cultural diversity the potential to cause
offence is increased. If offence is made into a bogey, it is more
likely to lead to real harm being done. A mere insult becomes a
cause for physical retaliation. More than ever it is incumbent on
all of us to tolerate being offended.
Though a keen awareness of cultural diversity is crucial, fear of
offending other religions may blind us to the individual behind the
label. I have been guilty of providing a selection of halal food
that was studiously ignored by the intended recipient in favour of
the ubiquitous pork chop.
John Stuart Mill argued that power should only be exercised over
another person in order to prevent harm to others. We all have a
right not to be harmed but no one has a right not to be offended.
If it is worth saying, it will probably offend somebody.
Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential