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Lindsay Perigo

The Tyranny of Umbrage

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What is freedom of expression? Without freedom to offend, it ceases to exist, wrote Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie once offended Muslims, the most prominent of whom at the time issued a fatwa against him.

Muslims like to use the freedom afforded them in western societies to hold demonstrations where they brandish placards saying, To hell with freedom of speech!, Death to those who insult Islam! and the like.

When I concluded that Islam is a stinking, stupid, savage superstition in my then-Salient column a couple of years ago, a Muslim student responded: “Have you not learnt that Muslims do not take very kindly to deliberately injurious and unfair representations of their religion? How do you think they would react to Islam being reduced to a stinking, stupid superstition?

He made no attempt to address my arguments against Islam. He knew that in the current climate of knee-jerk offence-taking, where any random airhead can attain his or her fifteen minutes of celebrity simply by being offended about something (anything), it would be sufficient to proclaim his umbrage. He further knew that he could get away with threatening violent retaliation on the basis of it.

The abiding disgrace of Paul Henry’s forced resignation is not that an unworthy standard-bearer of Political Incorrectness has lost his job; it’s that TVNZ, in shutting Henry down, has capitulated to a lynch-mob professing hurt feelings—and that hurt feelings are regarded as sufficient justification for a lynching.

In more robust times, stupidly implying that the current Governor-General doesn’t look or sound like a New Zealander would have been subject to just derision, and that would have been that. And we could have enjoyed the hilarity of the name of the Indian cabinet minister called upon to sort out the dysfunctional sewage system at the Commonwealth Games being Dikshit without an international furore, an orgy of apologising, Security Council resolutions … and local losers quacking that, like, they, like, felt they had been, like, stripped of their, like, identity, and were, like, so totally offended.

No longer. Now, we all must tread on eggshells lest we cause offence to someone (anyone). Free speech, including the irreverent humour which it subsumes, is out the window. TVNZ’s behaviour has just helped clinch its demise.

Overseas, Universal Pictures has pulled a promotional trailer for a new movie, The Dilemma, after complaints about a character calling electric cars ‘gay.’ The use of the word ‘gay’ in this trailer as a slur is unnecessary and does nothing more than send a message of intolerance about our community to viewers, said Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Left-wing CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper told Ellen Degeneres that he’d seen the trailer in a theatre and was ‘shocked’ to hear ‘that is so gay’ in a way that was meant to make people laugh. Oh please! The writer of this op-ed is gay and is not remotely offended by the trailer. He is offended by two-bit totalitarians just itching for a Holocaust to be victims of.

The Tyranny of Umbrage is everywhere.

It is underpinned and fomented by laws such as this one in New Zealand under which Paul Henry could be jailed:

Inciting racial disharmony

(1) Every person commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to a fine not exceeding $7,000 who, with intent to excite hostility or ill-will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule, any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons,—

(a) Publishes or distributes written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or broadcasts by means of radio or television words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or

(b) Uses in any public place (as defined in section 2(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981), or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting,—

being matter or words likely to excite hostility or ill-will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule, any such group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons.

There are pockets of enlightenment in western countries still who recognise that freedom of speech necessarily entails the right to cause offence. Not so long ago Rowan Atkinson led a campaign in Britain upholding the right to offend, against government plans to outlaw the expression of religious hatred. Atkinson correctly opined that such a law would force creative thinkers to bite their tongue, and so produce a veneer of tolerance concealing a snakepit of unaired and unchallenged views.

As John Stuart Mill put it 160 years ago: The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

More recently, Ayn Rand said: The principle of free speech is not concerned with the content of a man’s speech and does not protect only the expression of good ideas, but all ideas. If it were otherwise, who would determine which ideas are good and which forbidden? The government?

Even one of her antipodes, Noam Chomsky, has averred, If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.

And of course there’s the famous, immortal formulation attributed to Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

This, in the wake of the Paul Henry debacle, is th

e mindset to which we must repair if we are to reclaim the right to free speech laid out in our Bill of Rights: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form. At issue is not TVNZ’s right to fire Henry; at issue is whether it was right to do so—and the chilling effect on freedom of expression of our foolish, fashionable acquiescence to the proposition that umbrage is a substitute for argument and a justification for censorship. As Rand further argued:

Once a country accepts censorship of the press and of speech, then nothing can be won without violence. Therefore, so long as you have free speech, protect it. This is the life-and-death issue in this country: do not give up the freedom of the press—of newspapers, books, magazines, radios, movies, and other forms of presenting ideas. So long as that’s free, a peaceful intellectual turn is possible.