Why the right to give offence should never be trumped by the ‘right’ not to be offended
Father Ted writer Graham Linehan is a comic genius. His hit television series, which also include The IT Crowd, are classics that show no sign of growing old. He’s also a pugnacious and sometimes belligerent user of Twitter. He has almost 700,000 followers and can usually be relied on for leading so-called ‘twitch-hunts’, critical of people perceived not to be progressive in their views.
In a deeply ironic twist, he has now fallen foul of some of his erstwhile cheerleaders after police called to his house to issue him with a formal legal warning over what they claimed was harassment of a person who was born a man and now identifies as a woman, and has had this identity legally recognised.
Linehan and Stephanie Hayden had been involved in a Twitter spat over the writer’s views on transgender issues.
“There’s this unquestioning reverence for anyone who says they are transgender, but this unquestioning loyalty is really dangerous,” he insisted.
He claims that Hayden, who medically transitioned to a woman in 2007, released details of his home address on Twitter, and alleges that this led him to use her pre-transition names ‘Tony’ and ‘Steven’ online in retaliation.
Hayden claims to have suffered severe distress due to the row, and, as a result, Linehan now finds himself on the wrong side of the thought police.
I don’t doubt for one moment that Hayden felt upset by the exchange. But the crux of the matter is whether or not we believe it is really the job of the
police to monitor whether or not people are being nice to one another online.
Anyone who ventures an opinion online knows it can be a nasty world. Britain now has some of the most draconian
laws in the world when it comes to protecting people’s feelings on the internet.
A few years ago, during the Olympics, an obnoxious creep tweeted diver Tom Daley to say his father, who had died of
brain cancer when Tom was a teenager, would have been disappointed by the athlete’s performance. It was a particularly nasty comment, to which the police responded to with a formal investigation.
The point is there is a huge difference between being a prat and a dangerous hate-monger — and people should be able to tell that difference.
Some politicians and commentators would like Ireland to adopt the more robust approach to online unkindness now commonplace in Britain.
Left-leaning politicians, in particular, have warned that laws against so-called hate crimes perpetrated online need to be toughened up.
The irony, of course, is that many who support such restrictions are also vocal supporters of the repeal of the meaningless reference to blasphemy in the Irish constitution. Most people acknowledge it has no force, but they claim it has a chilling effect on free speech.
It’s extraordinary how those so intent on removing the offence of blasphemy don’t see the irony in campaigning at the same time to double-down on free speech.
Minorities deserve legal protection from incitement to hatred and discrimination but, just as religious people don’t have a right to have their identity preserved from ridicule, no one has a right to be free from people saying unkind things about them.
Anything that constitutes xenophobia, racism, or sectarianism, must be — and is — punishable by the law, but no one should expect to employ the law to ensure that their feelings are not hurt.
Debate is, and should be, robust. Sometimes — particularly online — this can tend towards the uncivilised, but this is not dangerous. What is dangerous is building a culture where the right to be offensive is trumped by the right of another not to be offended.
I’ve no problem with the repeal of the offence of blasphemy, but I’m also increasingly exacerbated by those advocating liberty when it comes to religion, but restrictions on almost every other aspect of free speech.
As Stephen Sondheim might put it: “Send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re already here.”
Online unpleasantries: Graham Linehan and Stephanie Hayden have been involved in a Twitter spat that led to the former being formally warned by police