The Right Not to Be Offended
A local police force in Merseyside, England held a public event with a giant digital billboard showing the rainbow flag that is the banner of the LGBT community and a slogan in white: “HATE CRIME: Being Offensive Is an Offence.” To emphasize the message, the billboard also blared: “Merseyside Police stand with and support the LGBTQ+ community, we will not tolerate Hate Crime on any level.” It had fine print — or as fine as print gets for a billboard — helpfully defining what a “hate crime” was: “A crime against: Sex Workers, Sexual Orientation, Disability, Gender Identity, Race, Ethnicity or Nationality, Religion, Faith, or Belief.” Well! A weird sign, signaling the weird times we live in. I remember another English police force controversy from years ago, when some forces started hanging signs to warn citizens in dangerous areas: “Beware: Criminals Operate Here.” This in fact signals some tolerance of crime. Why not a sign: “Criminals Beware: Police Operate Here.” Anyway, back to Merseyside: Social media responded with anger: ‘This is chilling.’ ‘This is frightening.’ Etc. And it is. And the Merseyside Police have since apologized for misleading the public. Offensiveness isn’t enough to convict. “Hate crime can come in various guises that can include assault, criminal damage, verbal and written online abuse,” they clarified. Or sort of clarified. What was odd was the billboard itself. It was a “well-intentioned” attempt to signal solidarity with marginalized groups and encourage the reporting of hate crimes. One wonders: Do Englishmen and Englishwomen need such encouragement? Over the course of the year ending in March 2020, police in England and Wales had reported 105,090 hate crimes, an 8 percent increase from the year before. In fact, every single year England and Wales apparently get more hate-filled. In 2014, the number of hate crimes reported was below 40,000. In the United Kingdom, the motivation of “hatred” worsens the penalty for other crimes, such as theft, property damage, and assault. The government reports that “in convicted cases where the prosecution applied to the court for a sentence increase to take account of the hate aspect of the crime it was granted in 77.5 per cent of cases.” So in three quarters of alleged hate crimes that went to prosecution, the penalties increased. There were nearly 11,000 such prosecutions in 2020, and 85 percent of those resulted in convictions. And this Merseyside display is far from the first time that police forces in the U.K. have blurred the line between giving offense and committing illegal acts of online abuse. Local police forces regularly warn their citizens that their Facebook posts may be illegal. My favorite example is from Glasgow. Think before you post or you may receive a visit from us this weekend. Use the internet safely. #thinkbeforeyoupost pic.twitter.com/xNiDMf3jPA — Greater Glasgow Police (@GreaterGlasgPol) April 1, 2016 Hundreds of people are arrested every year in the U.K. under the Communications Act. And that government isn’t even the most repressive in Europe. Germany’s Network Enforcement Act pressures social networks to censor preemptively or face fines. United Nations experts have openly worried it would lead those networks to “delete legitimate expression, not susceptible to restriction under human rights law, as a precaution to avoid penalties.” The United States is pioneering its own “right not to be offended,” but it is enforced indirectly, through employers, as an effect of corporate liability. Title VII litigation or the threat of it has nurtured an entire script about identity, allyship, respect, and workplace safety. We’re now so far around the bend that media members discussing a media controversy around whether a journalist could use the “n-word” — not as a weaponized slur — but simply to reference a slur that others used — are now told they are workplace-safety risks and given suspensions without pay until they find a way to quit. The right not to be offended may be a concession to an emerging caste system. Historically, aristocrats and royal personages tend to have the right not to be offended. And in post-Christian culture, perhaps victim groups acquire it. In the absence of a common liturgy that tells us we all can be victims or victimizers in our turn, we have sociological and political theories that designate the permanent oppressors and oppressed. Or the right to be offended is a recognition that we no longer share a common culture, but instead have something like the non-overlapping “communities” one finds in places where people don’t share a common national identity. In these unhappy places, elaborate legally binding rules emerge to facilitate shows of respect and draw lines of social demarcation. They function like treaties, and transgressing them is presumed to return the parties to a state of social war. I don’t expect that any plausible identities I could claim are likely to grant me the power to tell my co-workers they are “denying my existence” and “making me debate my humanity in the workplace.” I’ve tried to goad Charlie Cooke into calling me a “left-footer.” But try explaining that to a judge in New York. The question I have for those who do anticipate offense is this: Are you sure it’s healthy to live in a world where tyrannical oppression is assumed to exist within all social disagreements, careless verbal slights, and thoughtless cracks? This worldview seems like a prison so impenetrable, no legal right, or government can spring you from it.