Expression, and taking offence

It sometimes seems that the only way not to offend someone somewhere is to be bland and keep your head down.

Do nothing of any significance and no-one can complain. In the West, we live in times of relative tolerance but we also live in an indignant, assertive age.

It takes little for dander to be raised and umbrage to be expressed.

Offence is, of course, very much in the eye of the beholder. What is irreverent to a conservative Christian, for example, might simply be irrelevant to most other people.

Language that upsets some is common parlance to many.

Offensiveness very much depends on cultural attitudes and personal background.

Public displays of affection and skimpy dress - bikinis and Speedos on a beach for instance - might be considered by most people in New Zealand as acceptable, but in other areas of the world may well result in a jail sentence.

In the latter cases, respect for laws and mores is surely the solution.

Those of "liberal" persuasion often fancy themselves as tolerant and look down on the narrow mindedness, as they see it, of others.

But they, too, have zones of fervent intolerance. They, too, take offence when a matter or issue upsets their sense of what is right and proper.

Take, for instance, the furore when the president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, "provocatively" suggested in a 2005 speech that the under-representation of women in science and engineering could be due to a "different availability of aptitude at the high end" and less to patterns of discrimination and socialisation.

He was pilloried for the remarks, despite the common perception that universities encourage free and open academic discourse on important subjects.

Gender, race and religion are all touchy, and often no-go, areas - even when the area of debate might be legitimate.

The past week has seen St Matthew's Anglican Church in central Auckland can be relied on this time of year to infuriate some with its billboards. This season, the subject has been an anxious Mary reacting to a positive pregnancy test.

An infuriated Catholic group destroyed the billboard in an assertion of its disgust. Its public opposition, in a free society, was appropriate. Its vandalism was not.

Mockery of Christianity seems to be fair game these days, and one would hope that Christians in most circumstances have the self-confidence and self-respect to be able to deflect the slings and arrows, to turn the other cheek, so to speak.

It is a different matter with images of Muhammed and the aggressive end of Islam.

Worldwide riots followed the publication of Danish cartoons in 2005, and author Salmon Rushdie was hounded into seclusion by death threats.

Intimidation has worked, often through self-censorship, when it comes to free speech.

As with so many areas of life, there is a balance to be had. The principle of freedom of expression, even when the content is widely objectionable, is an essential element of democracy.

At the same time, free speech has its limits, particularly when it affects the weak and the vulnerable and when it goes to the extremes of "hate" speech.

Abuse based on gender or race, in particular, has no place, as footballers in England are finding.

Being offended does, sometimes, have a place in ensuring that society is healthy, fair and respectful. There are times, therefore, when offence should be taken.

It is best, though, not to cheapen the currency by being too ready with indignation.

We should think carefully before leaping into offensive mode, and save the indignation for when it really matters.

And another thing
The Ministry of Health - led in this instance by Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne - deserves credit for its swift action in banning the synthetic cannabis-like substance AM-2233, which is believed to be a component in the Tai High range of so-called "legal highs".

Plaudits should also go the Dunedin police, who drew the ministry's attention to the availability of these new products.

Too often, action occurs only after months of hand-wringing and ineffectual debate.

Acting so decisively over such potentially harmful products is to be commended.


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