I was thinking about the pervasive notion of "offensiveness" in modern Britain and pondering whether there was anything useful I could say about it. I am uncomfortable with the idea that causing offence should ever have any legal consequences.
I grew up believing that a robust public exchange of views was the foundation of a free society. Do I find it offensive that millions should advocate legalised robbery of their fellow citizens so that the proceeds can be applied to purposes they favour? I certainly do. I find it shocking and rather disgusting. But I want the political parties that advocate such violence (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP) to be free to continue to do so. Do I find it offensive that Muslim preachers advocate violent jihad? Yes I do but not only do I want them to be free to do so, I want the media to liberate them from the Dark Web and give them every possible opportunity to be heard so that all can understand their wickedness.
I grew up in a working class community so perhaps my expectations as to the tone of that public exchange tend to the more robust end of the spectrum. Certainly if I try to explain my concerns in my current milieu, I find polite, middle class people struggling to understand why - in their terms - I would even want to be vulgar. For that's what they seem to hear when I advocate that every citizen should be free to express his opinions, however foul. Free speech is meaningless if you are only free to agree. Let people speak. Let's know what they think. Let's have the chance to engage with them, to reason with them and perhaps even change their mistaken opinions.
Nothing legitimates an opinion more than suppressing it. See, for example, how religions thrive when persecuted. Contrast that with their drift to irrelevance if there is freedom of religious expression.
The notion of "offensiveness" may not have a chilling effect on free speech among those familiar with the new mores, but by definition they are a minority. Not to mention the minority that defined the boundaries of offensiveness to match their own world view. People not acculturated to their ideology now find it hard to know what they may safely write or say. Worse, they find it too much trouble to decide.
Is this perhaps a cause of declining public interest in politics? If you are not a professional politician with a support network, you are quite likely to find yourself in more trouble than the game is worth. No wonder politics has become a geeky backwater, rather than an open public arena.
If, as I do, you follow the left-wing media, you cannot fail to notice a tendency to call political enemies bad names, designed to place them outside the Left's version of polite society. This name-calling is steadily replacing discussion and debate. Criticise a leftist, as I did Peter Tatchell, and you will find their tentacles reaching out to test you for offensive views so that you can be badged and dismissed. There is no need even to acknowledge your opinions, still less to consider their merits. This cannot surely be healthy?
This 'offensiveness' notion tends to encourage a victim mentality. This is very unhealthy, particularly for those defining themselves as victims. There is also the practical concern that since offence may be taken as well as given, it's not really susceptible to the objective tests necessary for good law.
I thought I might expand on this last point; not because it's the most important (principles always matter more) but because it's more likely to persuade the misguided to reconsider. In researching, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole to a leftist wonderland. The linked 'prosecution policy and guidance' from the Crown Prosecution Service on 'stalking and harassment' for example helped me resolve my confusion from reading the actual laws. I thought I must be missing something when I could find no definition of 'harassment' in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The guidance notes helpfully state that
Although harassment is not specifically defined [my emphasis] it can include repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and contacts upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person.
What a wonderful Parliament. It seeks to protect us from an evil it cannot itself define. Its only acknowledgement of the difficulties this might create in practice is to say that a course of conduct that might otherwise amount to harassment will not be unlawful if embarked upon
for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime
under any enactment or rule of law to comply with any condition or requirement imposed
In short they noticed it was vague and woolly, so they exempted the state and its agents!
I may return to the subject because it is fascinating to see the knots in which our would-be lords and masters have tied themelves in this respect. I suggest you at least read the CPS guidance notes however. They are targeted at police officers and so are not difficult to read. They are also quite shocking.