Part 111: The Right To Be Offended

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. It’s good to have you here, thank you for reading. It’s that time of year when the clocks change, and the nights become even darker even earlier. I’m already struggling with the effects of the earlier sunsets. The dark evenings make me feel constantly tired and demotivated. I’m kind of entering a semi-hibernation mode, in which I simply don’t even attempt to go out in the evening once I’ve got home from the office. This means I’m down to one gym visit a week at the weekend, so I’m just keeping my fitness ticking over. It’s the end of October, and I’m already longing for spring.

My mood hasn’t been helped by the general catastrophe of the Tory government, and the struggling economy that has resulted in me resigning myself to continue living in rented accommodation until the housing market and mortgage deals calm down. I’m guessing that will be, at the most optimistic outlook, the middle of next year. Probably longer.

With an uptick in covid prevalence, more news of abuse in care homes, and the continuing trouble in Ukraine, there’s plenty to feel miserable about. And that makes me even less likely than normal to put up with bullshit. I want to talk this week about some misconceptions about being offended. And I’m going to start with one of the most misunderstood and weaponised quotes of recent years on this very subject:

An image of a block of text quoting Stephen Fry.  The quotation reads: "It's now very common to hear people say, I'm rather offended by that, as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase.  I'm offended by that. Well, so fucking what?

Being offended or taking offence has been demonised by people who don’t understand the criticism of being offended. Stephen Fry’s comment was made during a discussion about free speech. What many people fail to understand about free speech is that it cuts two ways. Let me give you a fictional example that accurately reflects how invoking being offended and free speech can be badly deployed in real life:

Warrior mom: “It’s hard work being a parent of an autistic child, but thankfully, ABA is helping him behave.”

Autistic person: “ABA is abusive and causes harm to autistic children.”

Warrior mom: “I find that offensive. I know ABA helps my child!”

Autistic person: “There is plenty of evidence from autistic adults who went through ABA as children and have been traumatised by it.”

Warrior mom: “Don’t try to silence me! I have a right to free speech, and your criticism is offensive to me!”

In this example, the warrior mom is relying on the right to free speech to justify spreading harmful views about ABA. Furthermore, she is relying on the notion of being offended to accuse the autistic person of silencing her. But this is, of course, utter bullshit. Disagreeing with someone is not silencing them. But telling someone they have no right to disagree with you because you find what they say offensive certainly is an attempt to silence criticism of one’s views. The right to free speech includes the right to reply. The right to free speech includes the right to draw attention to someone else’s speech, and criticise or challenge it. That is what free speech is about. And in the above example, the warrior mom seems oblivious to the fact that the autistic person might be offended by her views. To take offence at someone challenging your opinion is, as a general principle, an act of wilful stupidity. However, it’s not entirely that simple.

The notion that being offended is silly and pointless is seductive for those people who revel in spouting harmful views and hate speech. Stephen Fry is a gay man, and it is hard to imagine him not feeling offended by some of the dangerous and harmful anti-gay rhetoric spouted by certain people in this world. There are some nations in which it is illegal to be gay, and where the consequences of being found to be gay can be fatal. I would imagine this kind of culture is something gay people would find offensive. I’m not gay, but I’m autistic, and I find the way autistic people are often misrepresented, mistreated, bullied, discriminated against and marginalised at every turn extremely offensive. You see, there is a difference between taking offence, and something being offensive in and of itself. To understand the difference, you have to understand something called the harm principle.

Probably the most famous thinker on the philosophy of free speech (and by extension, freedom of expression) is John Stuart Mill (1806-1863). In his seminal work, On Liberty, Mill famously wrote, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” That seems pretty straightforward, but Mill qualified this with an important point. He realised that, as I often say, words have power, and thus, words can cause harm. Therefore, Mill stated there should be some limits on free speech, where such speech might cause harm. So he added, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

As is the case with all philosophy, you can easily disappear down a rabbit hole of discussing what constitutes harm, and how it should be measured, etc, ad infinitum. This is not the place for that discussion; let’s just apply some common sense, and admit that harm is a thing that sometimes happens as a result of words. An example might be a political agitator inciting a riot that ends up injuring innocent bystanders. You get the drift. The problem is, who decides what is classed as harmful speech in our ordinary daily lives, and how is it managed? This is where people get confused about rights. Too many people assume a right to free speech that gives them a right to say absolutely anything they want, without even considering what rights actually are.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of right to free speech. There is the moral right, and the legal right. A fundamentalist Christian sect, similar to the one I was indoctrinated into as a child, might claim that people like Stephen Fry who have the temerity to engage in sinful sexual intercourse with persons of the same gender, are abominations, and doomed to hell. (In the Bible, Leviticus 18:22 famously admonishes, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”.) Christians with this belief might claim they have a moral right to air this view, even if it results in assaults on and murders of gay people. I’m straight, but I find this view of homosexuality as a sin highly offensive, and I think I’m justified in doing so, for the harm it causes. A moral right is not a legal right. In some countries, you might be allowed to, or even encouraged to, voice discrimination against gay people (or any social minority), but thankfully in the UK, it would be classed as hate speech. Within the laws of the land, there are rights to free speech, but these rights are limited in order to protect people from harm.

Some speech exercised freely by people falls into a kind of grey area. You can see the potential for harm in certain abhorrent views, but somehow, they skirt around the edge of what is legally classed as hate speech, and so those views stay out there, getting repeated and reinforced, especially when propagated over social media by people with influence. An example of this would be the many sickening transphobic tweets of Harry Potter author, JK Rowling. If abhorrent and harmful speech evades hate speech laws, what recourse is there for addressing them? Well, there is the right to be offended by those views, and to respond accordingly. So, I’m going to give a healthy fuck you to people who have latched on to Stephen Fry’s old comment about the pointlessness of being offended. Sometimes, there is a point. Sometimes, it’s correct to be offended, and to take a stance against the vile, harmful views of nasty people that seem to come in a deluge via popular media. Here is a short list (probably not complete) of things I find highly offensive:

  • Racism
  • Homophobia
  • Transphobia
  • Misogyny
  • Neurotype discrimination
  • Violence
  • Care home abuse
  • Tory policies
  • Domestic abuse
  • Religion
  • Corruption
  • Paedophiles
  • Any kind of cruelty to children
  • Teachers who value their jobs more than their pupils

I’ve put the points about children last on the list, not because they are the least important (all the points on the list are important), but because it segues nicely into what provoked me to write this week’s blog post. I’m sure it will come as no shock for regular readers to find this was a tweet. The tweets in question comes from someone claiming to be an aspirational headteacher.

A screenshot of a tweet.  The tweeters identity is obscured. The tweet reads: "SENCOS - if a parent comes to you claiming concerns around ASD/ADHD but there are no concerns from a school perspective- how to do you combat this? Do you go ahead and support them in a referral? Do you dismiss it entirely?"  I have highlighted the word "combat".

I wasn’t the only person who saw this tweet and had concerns about the word combat. The tweeter shrugged off challenges to this word in a show of arrogance, ridiculing people for objecting. But unguarded statements often betray the way a person thinks, and the word combat, along with the general tone of the tweet, and other autism-related tweets from this person, say a lot. I have been given some reliable information about the ways autistic children are being failed in schools in my home city. Confidentiality limits what I can say here. But this kind of attitude from someone in the teaching profession comes as no surprise to me at all. It is, however, something I find offensive. I know that the negative attitudes of teachers to the very autistic children they are charged with caring for, educating, and safeguarding, are causing actual harm. So yes, I will say I’m offended by it, without apology. I’m taking back the right to be offended.

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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.


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Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

One thought on “Part 111: The Right To Be Offended

  1. As a boy with an autism spectrum disorder [not to mention high sensitivity and resultant ACEs] I was often deemed ‘difficult’. The first and most formidably abusive authority figure with whom I was terrifyingly trapped was my Grade 2 teacher, in the early 1970s.

    Although I can’t recall her abuse in its entirety, I’ll nevertheless always remember how she had the immoral audacity — and especially the unethical confidence in avoiding any professional repercussions — to blatantly readily aim and fire her knee towards my groin, as I was backed up against the school hall wall.

    Luckily, she missed her mark, instead hitting the top of my left leg. Though there were other terrible teachers, for me she was uniquely traumatizing, especially when she wore her dark sunglasses when dealing with me. But rather than tell anyone about my ordeal with her and consciously feel victimized, I instead felt some misplaced shame.

    Not surprisingly, I believe society needs more education on autism spectrum disorder, something that can largely be accomplished through cerebral-diversity high-school curriculum.

    When all teachers are fully educated on ASD, there should be an inclusion in standard high school curriculum of a child development course, albeit not overly complicated, which in part would teach about the often-debilitating condition. It would explain to students how, among other aspects of the condition, ASD people, including higher functioning autistics, are often deemed willfully ‘difficult’ and socially incongruent, when such behavior is really not a choice for them.

    Furthermore, when around their neurotypical peers, people with ASD typically feel compelled to “camouflage” or “mask”, terms used to describe their attempts at appearing to naturally fit in when around their neurotypical peers, an effort known to cause their already high anxiety and/or depression levels to worsen. And, of course, this exacerbation is reflected in the disproportionately high rate of suicide among ASD people.

    Through such education, the incidence of vicious bullying against students with an ASD might be reduced.


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