Why freedom of expression has never been an unlimited right to be offensive.
The phrase “political correctness gone mad” has become synonymous with “I’m no longer allowed to say what I want”, and is commonly used with some sort of reference to freedom of expression being violated. Applied to a variety of personal characteristics — such as race, nationality, gender, and religion — people are generally expected to refrain from using language that is, or has been, used as a pejorative term.
This phenomenon is by no means unusual and indeed our societies are constantly evolving to adapt to new political and cultural norms, but this debate has reached fever pitch as society has become more polarised. Refraining from insults should not be a contentious issue. Disguising a reluctance to change established traditions or turns of phrase, the term ‘political correctness’ is more often than not involved in arguments about whether we can be offensive.
Many of us have been in the uncomfortable position of realising the dangers of our own unconscious prejudice and unintentionally harmful language, but there are numerous groups and individuals with more extreme — or even extremist — views who see these new norms of tolerance as an unjustifiable infringement upon their human rights. The terms ‘woke’ — ironically, originally used to refer to a person who is knowledgeable on social injustices, particularly racism — and ‘snowflake’ are used to insult equality activists who are ‘to blame’ for being so ‘easily offended’ and having the gall to insinuate that those who do not adapt to our new norms are bigoted, stuck in their ways, or wrong. Quite apart from the fact that the people who use harmful language and perpetuate stereotypes often express the most outrage, freedom of expression has never been a limitless right.
Herein lies the problem: the groups of people who promote restrictions on topics they find ‘controversial’ or ‘unnecessary’ — often because such discussions result in an implication of culpability upon their ancestors or like-minded individuals — tend to be the same people who are horrified that they are no longer free to express their views at will.
The former could be a valid discussion, as sometimes open discussion of controversial — but, importantly, not offensive — topics is necessary to foster mutual understanding and combat stereotypes, such as the increase in Islamophobia in recent years being partly attributed by some to the stifling of debate in educational institutions and stigma attached to any interest in Islam. The latter has not been a valid debate for many decades.
Under human rights legislation — including both the Human Rights Act 1998 (‘HRA’) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (‘ICCPR’) for those who are suspicious of European legislation — freedom of expression has always been a qualified right. These provisions enshrine the freedom of expression, but limit the right with the caveat that it may be restricted by law where, for example, it is necessary “for respect of the rights or reputations of others” (ICCPR, Article 19). Freedom of expression is therefore explicitly the right to express personal opinions that do not disrespect others. You can say or write what you want, but you cannot harm or insult someone else — or limit their enjoyment of human rights — in the process.
At JAN Trust, we see open, tolerant debate as vital to a democratic society and actively speak out against all forms of prejudice. Whilst we work to empower our beneficiaries who predominantly come from marginalised minority communities, we also recognise that we must constantly re-evaluate our beliefs and language to change with the times. Our innovative Another Way Forward™ programme educates young women and girls on important societal dangers like hate and extremism, and encourages them to discuss their thoughts with each other in an open, supportive environment.
We know that one of the best ways to improve community cohesion and unity is to promote interaction between people of different backgrounds and encourage honest communication without getting personal. Indeed, evolution and checking our biases and privilege should be a natural course of action for an open-minded individual as opposed to any sort of real ‘sacrifice’. By willingly limiting our own self-centred ‘freedom’, we make society freer and more equal as a result.