May 16, 2015

"Everyone has the absolute right to offend": University of Auckland debate at AWF15

Auckland Writers Festival
Clockwise from upper left:
Auletta, Davies, Singh, Haynes













Ana from Readers Services attended the University of Auckland Festival Debate. She reports:


This session was facilitated by Linda Clark. It featured two debaters from the University of Auckland Debating Society, and a panel composed of  Ken Auletta, The New Yorker media correspondent; Nick Davies, investigative journalist from the U.K.; Natalie Haynes, English comedian and classicist; and Jaspreet Singh, Indian/Canadian novelist and scientist.

As we entered the ASB Theatre, we were asked to vote for or against the motion "Everyone has the absolute right to offend". We were told the results would be revealed at the end of the debate.

I already knew that the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Rupert Murdoch scandal would be mentioned (obvious in a debate on freedom of speech). Nick Davies, one of the panel, is in fact the author of Hack Attack, the definitive record of the investigation into Rupert Murdoch's activities and the phone hacking scandal. And so it was.

Paul, the first debater, spoke for “yes”. He outlined what happens when you “offend” someone. He mentioned how Socrates offended Athenian society and had to pay with his life. He also talked about homosexuality, something which was forbidden in the past (remember Oscar Wilde), but now is accepted. It is for things such as this that we must commit to personal and political freedom of expression. If someone is hurt by someone else's speech, the hurt is subjective, and the best response is to just isolate yourself from it (turn the TV off or stop reading or listening). Freedom of expression is one of the most cherished and unalienable rights we have.

Jessica spoke for "no". Her argument was that the right to offend is not absolute; that life is not black and white and that we must take into account the social context. She said that many things said to offend do not have any merit and are said just to provoke. The people who deny the holocaust ever happened are an example of this.

Next the panel had their turn. Ken Auletta started by saying “Yes”. He prefers that everybody have the absolute right to offend. Talking about Chalie Hebdo, he said we don’t have to approve of every cartoon, but we have to accept their right to say what someone wants against the lunatics who carried out the shooting. He knows there are moral codes; there are libels, law, standards for advertising etc., but we have an absolute right to speak.

Natalie Haynes followed by saying she has a particular hatred of perfume and aftershave and is offended when someone wears them, but it stops there, as "I am not a fascist". She wonders whether there is a need to be offended. Is it a need? And no one can predict what people are going to be offended about. 

Jaspreet Singh talked about Galileo and his troubles with the Roman Catholic Church; he talked about the Bangladeshi blogger who was hacked to death by Al Qaeda for blasphemy; about India, where books get pulped and vigilantes (or the Government) can take away people’s right to free speech.

He is very worried that the government of Canada has recently heavily censured scientists and killed many of their projects. If someone protests, he’ll be offending the Government of Canada, and can be put in prison. One other thing that worries him is France’s giant leap towards totalitarianism. He was for ‘yes’.

Nick Davies had the most to say. He said that his response was "Yes, but..." He is all for freedom of speech but says there is a “small area” that we should cordon off. One example is if what you are saying is not only offensive, but designed to hurt someone who is vulnerable. Another is when whatever is said is not just causing pain: inciting violence or hatred against a minority is not okay.

He said religion shouldn’t be protected, that it shouldn’t be a criminal offence to be rude about God (as it is in Britain). It’s ludicrous. He added that there are many ways to counter this, e.g. fight cartoons with other cartoons.  Minimum constraints are best.

The debaters came back out and summed up, and the panel had their own summation - almost without a contribution from Natalie Haynes as Linda Clark forgot about her, but she put her hand up and said her piece which was all in favour of yes.

At that point the audience was asked to vote again, to see if our opinions had been changed. The vote on entering the room was 51% to 49% in favour of the absolute right to offend; after the debate the numbers had shifted to 55% to 45% for “yes but”.

--Ana

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 09:54
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