What’s Wrong With Being Offended?

On Monday 12 September Judge Lamont ruled that Malema’s singing of the struggle song ‘Dubul Ibhunu’ usually translated to mean ‘Shoot the Boers’ was banned under the category of ‘hate speech’ stating that ‘The words undermined the dignity of people and were discriminatory and harmful.’  

The Afrikanerbond said ‘The hate speech judgment against ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema is the first step to non-racism.’

Constitutional law expert Pierre De Vos accepts the category of ‘hate speech’ while bemoaning the decision of Judge Lamont.

Now the ANC is appealing the decision that categorises the struggle song as hate speech. Having enshrined the category of ‘hate speech’ in the constitution, it appears the ANC has been hoisted with its own petard.  

In my view the category of ‘hate speech’ is more offensive than the words it is intended to censure.

In all of these cases there is a patronising attitude about the ‘target’(s) of so-called ‘hate speech’ and the wider audience which I find more worrying than the ‘hate speech’ itself.

It assumes that offending people is a bad thing because the person or people to whom the offensive word(s) is directed will be so hurt and demeaned by it that they need to be protected. In addition, it assumes that the prejudices of the wider public will be so inflamed by hearing this speech that they will be incited to violent acts against the targets of hate speech. But giving offence and taking offence is the basis of a democratic society and of full and free debate. As J S Mills so succinctly put it in the footnote at the beginning of Chapter II of On Liberty ‘If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered. (1978, 15)

In other words nothing should be banned and everything should be questioned.

Being offended should not make us into victims who quake with fear. The majority of us are rational human beings with the ability to think for ourselves and not to be influenced by any old demagogue who comes along. Our right to free speech allows us to robustly refute that which offends us and convince others of the rightness of our views.   The argument that not everyone is bold enough to challenge offensive views or words treats all of us as vulnerable individuals and takes away our right to freedom of speech.

There is no harm in being offended. There is a great deal of harm in limiting freedom of speech for all of us. The clause about ‘hate speech’ should be removed from the constitution on this basis.

Sharmini Brookes 16/09/2011