Speech is an integral part of our everyday lives since it is the main contributing factor to human communication. Offensive speech is an inevitable consequence of human communication in relation to the right to free speech and is, therefore, everywhere. If you spend more than five minutes on Twitter, Facebook, or any relevant social media platform, I can guarantee that you will ultimately stumble upon something you consider offensive. But does everything you find offensive cause the same feelings of repulsion in the rest of society?
The tightrope of what is and what is not offensive speech has troubled societies across the historical timeline. To grasp the full spectrum of the issue, it is integral to define offensive speech and differentiate it from hate speech. Thus, weighing the costs and benefits of the former in the progression of human communication.
Britannica dictionary defines offensive as “something or someone that is causing another person to feel hurt, angry, or upset; rude or insulting.” The difference between something offensive and something hateful is that hate is defined as “feeling extreme enmity toward; regard with active hostility.” Hate speech is usually threatening to someone and potentially includes a call for violence against a person or group, while offensive speech is more focused on hurting someone’s feelings or even insulting the very things that make them unique.
It is important to understand that in an ever-changing world, ideas, societal norms, and the boundaries of what is considered offensive change over time. What was once considered offensive and a threat to civilization, such as the civil rights movement or women’s suffrage, is now an integral part of our everyday life. Even if offensiveness does not always lead to positive outcomes, it would be unreasonable to suppress something just because it contradicts our current social norms.
However, those present societal norms are what have reignited the debate over where to draw the line between free speech and offensive speech. Are these two concepts truly mutually exclusive, or is the latter merely a part of the former that each of us must accept? To answer this question, it is crucial to consider the impact of identity politics on the socio-political environment of the 21st century.
Identity politics, also known as the politics of difference, is a political approach in which people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identity-forming factors develop political agendas based on their identities (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It is a distinctive feature of modern liberal democratic societies and is often used as a synonym for the struggle against oppression. Black Lives Matter and the enforcement of equal rights for LGBTQ+ people are recent examples of successful outcomes.
However, the concept of identity politics, which aims to bring like-minded people together and make the public aware of their differences and struggles, has led to extreme polarization and, as a result, a restriction of free speech. By promulgating separate identities, making them extremely narrow and to a certain extent inaccessible, identity politics is now strenuously guarding them against outsiders by unjustifying any claims deemed to a group’s sense of self. This effect is indurated by the algorithms of most social media platforms, which react to a person’s activities.
For such a platform to ensure longer engagement, it will try to present users with content that they agree or sympathize with based on the posts they have interacted with the most, whether that is liking a post or spending the time to watch a suggested video in its entirety. In any case, the function of the algorithms programmed to maximize engagement, along with the extended time we spend on those platforms, for better or for worse, personalize the content that is delivered to us so much that we unavoidably end up in an echo chamber. We become so accustomed to seeing content that aligns with our values that we conclude that everyone else also aligns with those morals as well.
And that is not exclusive to social media. We normalize in our minds the idea that everyone has similar standing on socio-political issues as we do by tuning in to radio stations that promote events or content that encourages our beliefs or interests; by filtering, consciously or unconsciously, the information we consume, we normalize in our minds the idea that everyone has similar standing on socio-political issues as we do, making any expression of the opposing opinion seem surprising, “wrong,” and thus offensive to our sense of self and the things we stand for.
Realistically, by this thought process, anything can be seen as offensive should it be interpreted in such a way. This is where the line between what is considered offensive speech and the expression of free speech blurs under the imposition of respect toward all individuals and their identities. In the end, almost any kind of discourse might be seen as offensive. So how can one be considerate of every individual’s feelings without repressing their own right to free speech and expression in the process?
Short answer, they probably can’t. And they probably shouldn’t.
The “marketplace” of ideas benefits from offensive speech by widening its bounds, as it has successfully done in the past. By being offensive, we slowly free topics of discussion from their taboo status and start a conversation that might in the future normalize what started as an offensive topic. People have been defining themselves by being offensive since the dawn of time. The margins of acceptable speech are meant to be stretched to allow a community to progress. We should not sacrifice our self-expression for our fear of being offensive. Once upon a time, “coming out” was considered offensive. Women’s voting was considered offensive. Equal rights for people of color were considered offensive.
Only through expressing our willingness to challenge the current notion of offense will we be able to effectively counter what we consider unjust. The value of offensive speech lies within its ability to create a reaction to one’s ideas and pave the way toward a constant invitation for debate and development. It is, henceforth, essential that we continue to find within ourselves the courage to offend, as well as be offended.
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