The 'right' not to be offended

We should practice the free speech we preached in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. Image credit: Gerry Lauzon via Flickr

I enjoyed the period after the Charlie Hebdo Massacre. Not because I was skiing (although that helps) but because everyone was suddenly writing about how nobody has the right to be offended. I’ve been a dedicated contender of this view for many years, albeit due to different considerations, and for a while I thought my views had become dominant. Sadly, I seem to have been mistaken.

I made a rape joke. I can’t quite recall what it was but I do remember that it involved a witty and playful pun so I was feeling quite pleased with myself – it is not often that I get to display my wit at the dinner table. As I wallowed in self-love, someone sitting near me started acting outraged, telling me that I could not say such things. I thought I’d indulge their contention and see why exacly I cannot tell rape jokes at dinner. Before I begin in earnest, I’d like to set aside the trivial point that I can say whatever I want: my vocal chords work very well.

I asked my outraged acquaintance why I could not say some things and all they could offer was that it was inappropriate and potentially hurtful. I don’t really see why I should be appropriate if I don’t wish to be; at worst I just won’t be invited back, so I think that can be disregarded.

What of the more interesting objection that my words could be hurtful? 

I do not see how this could be the case. I did not address a rape victim and trivialise what happened to them; all I did was make a joke. As I see it, there are, broadly speaking, two different reasons why one might claim that rape jokes are inappropriate. One could claim that they trivialise a situation, or one could claim that they show support for it. If either of these were true then I could see why a rape joke could be classed as hurtful. Simply, they are not.

Against the charge of triviality I would like to ask what exactly 'trivialising' rape means. I take it to mean that if I make a joke about rape then I am implying that rape is not serious. This only follows if one thinks that as soon as one jokes about something then one is incapable of taking it seriously. This seems to be plainly false. I know of people who joke about their past history with depression and eating disorders but who take them very seriously.

What of the charge that a rape joke shows some kind of support for rape (perhaps only to the extent that it finds a funny aspect in rape). I think this is codswallop. Part of the reason a rape joke is funny is because rape is completely unacceptable. This is perhaps best illustrated with an example; consider: `It’s not rape if you shout surprise’ (admittedly it is quite a poor joke). If one genuinely believed this, there would be absolutely nothing incongruous with asserting it and therefore no room for humour. It is my knowledge that it is incorrect and very wrong which creates a juxtaposition, making the statement jar and creating the humour.

One could of course claim that rape jokes just aren’t funny, and many do. That’s just irrelevant: humour is subjective.

What underpins the belief that rape jokes should not be told is linked to the right not to be offended. As the movement from the Charlie Hebdo attack claimed, there are good (and in my opinion, correct) reasons for thinking that such a right is not desirable and that censoring jokes is problematic. Disliking what I have to say can be a good reason for not inviting me back, but it does not give you the right to try to shut me up.

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