David Leyonhjelm: Offence is taken, not given

This appeared as an op ed in The Financial Review, possibly on 22 Feb, David sent it to me weeks in advance, to hold for the 22nd and that date slipped by while I was looking the other way.

Nobody forces us to fall in love or to feel happy or sad. Why then do we blame others when we take offence? If we are responsible for our feelings in some cases, surely we are responsible in all cases.

In the Australian vernacular, being called a bastard can be intended as a serious insult, a minor criticism or a term of endearment, yet someone may find the term offensive irrespective of the intent of the person making the comment.

The same is true when it comes to comments about political beliefs, sexual orientation, appearance, gender identity, age, religious values or innumerable other factors that some claim gives rise to offense. Nobody can say with certainty how a comment might be received.
In tort and criminal law a person can be liable for all consequences resulting from activities that lead to injury to another person, even if the victim suffers unexpectedly high damage due to a pre-existing vulnerability. Known as the egg shell rule, it means liability may be severe if a person suffers injury as a result of assault or negligence and has a skull as delicate as the shell of an egg.

This relates only to physical injury though, and there is no such rule regarding verbal matters. Nonetheless, there is a growing tendency to attribute blame for the consequences of offence at the feet of those who utter the words irrespective of the circumstances of the person claiming to be offended.

When a UK nurse received a prank call from a Sydney radio station pretending to be the Queen, the immediate response focused on its entertainment value. Yet when the nurse committed suicide, the announcers who made the call were immediately blamed even though the nurse had the psychological equivalent of an egg shell skull, having made two prior suicide attempts.

The Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”, and yet whether anyone is indeed offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated is up to the receiver of the message. Given an inability to know in advance how the recipient might choose to feel, the only option is to avoid saying anything much at all.

This can have significant consequences for the way we speak. In America, and increasingly now here, it has become customary to wish everyone happy holidays rather than Merry Christmas out of concern that non-Christians may feel offended.

Filmmakers, cartoonists, artists and authors are reluctant to tackle certain subjects, such as the life of Mohammed, because individuals or groups claim to be offended, sometimes even responding with violence.

Similar to anger, frustration and loneliness, feeling offended is an emotion. But while they can be powerful, emotions are within our control. Apart from clinical depression perhaps, none is involuntary.

Even when a comment is intended to be hurtful, or there is indifference as to whether hurt is caused, how we respond depends on the core beliefs we have accumulated over a lifetime. Sometimes these are so odd that the most benign comment can arouse offence.

Because there is no cause and effect, the right of free speech does not require the right to offend. That does not mean we should ignore cultural norms like good manners and consideration for the feelings of others, but we do not need the law to tell us that the wrong response to the question ‘does my bum look big in this?’ can lead to problems.

The very notion that someone else can govern the way we feel diminishes our independence and self-ownership. If nobody can force us to think in a particular way, nobody can compel us to feel offended.

No matter how bigoted, ill-informed or obnoxious, our reaction to someone else’s words is always up to us. Unless words are coercive, by threatening, tricking or forcing us to do something against our will, we are responsible for how they are received. If we feel offended, we have the option of choosing another feeling.

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrats’ Senator-elect for NSW.

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46 Responses to David Leyonhjelm: Offence is taken, not given

  1. By the Lord Harry, someone has elected the mythical ‘Reasonable Man’.

  2. jumpnmcar

    And to think Kevin Bloody Wilson was last nominated for an ARIA only 11 years ago…..

  3. incoherent rambler

    David, many will feel offended by this post. You belittle their offence.

    Well written. Now will you be charged?

  4. blind freddy

    Sticks and stones etc

  5. ar

    the psychological equivalent of an egg shell skull

    People who take offence easily get a cracked skull from a punch in the arm…

  6. min

    I am not sure that feeling offended is an emotion . Commenting as a retired cognitive behavioural counselling psychologist who trained with the fathers of CBT , Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck . I understand his reasoning that we are in charge of our emotions however in the above circumstances one could say I am offended and I feel angry, frustrated, hurt, in fact a wide range of possibilities depending how one interpreted that one’s integrity, good name is being attacked. It is ok to feel angry , but not the degree that would cause you a problem just enough to take the appropriate action. So Cats what would you do ? Pistols at dawn?

  7. Turtle of WA

    And the result of offence laws is that we all have to ‘walk on eggshells’. Afraid to speak.

  8. Turtle of WA

    Truth itself becomes a faux pas.

  9. nerblnob

    I am ashamed (no, wait – OFFENDED!) that this even needs to be said in modern Australia.

    And the more you delegate judgement and manners to the law, the more you undermine the individual’s capacity for using judgement and deciding manners. Ultimate result – more cruelty, not less.

  10. It is the height of bad manners to take offence when none was intended.

    And I have said this in a frosty voice to people when they have tried to ‘take offence’ at innocent remarks by myself or by others.

  11. Mick Gold Coast QLD

    “increasingly now here, it has become customary to wish everyone happy holidays rather than Merry Christmas out of concern that non-Christians may feel offended.”

    I make a point of wishing anyone to whom I am making the greeting “a happy, Holy Christmas” and “a happy, Holy Easter” because that matches my beliefs. “Happy holidays” is feeble, weak, ignorant of why the holiday exists, an exercise in transparent contrived avoidance for no good reason.

    No-one has arced up yet. Quite a few have looked astonished or puzzled but that’s because, I believe, such a greeting doesn’t match with my appearance, especially in the civil construction game (and it’s not prefaced with “effing” and that alone makes it difficult for them :) ).

  12. DrBeauGan

    Nobody has to take offence. And nobody has to bow to the politically correct totalitarians either. Sod them. Happy Christmas and merry new year for the next few centuries, people!

  13. Mat

    Fingers crossed that the LDP candidate Jim Fryar gets a guernsey in the forthcoming WA Senate election, and that Scott Ludlum gets eviscerated.

  14. Eddystone

    that date slipped by while I was looking the other way.

    That happens to me all the time. It is still 1973, isn’t it?

  15. JB of Sydney/Shanghai

    David Leyonhjelm is probably the most sensible person in Australian politics, good on him! I wish him well.

  16. Alfonso

    The LDP is looking like a Lib vote stealer. Excellent.
    Criminalising offence and the ability of the state to control every activity through a CO2 tax are the great modern lusts of the Australian left.

  17. Louis Hissink

    Happy Holidays – Crikeys I have family who say that.

    Of course the trick to causing offence is to word it very subtly so that the victim is left wondering. That requires being alert at all times to make sure no slips of the tongue occur – a rather tiring state of being however. Here’s an example which actually happened.

    Some or other incident prompted me to mutter that someone was stupid. Not so, said my interlocutor, a doctrinaire lefty. My response was to hold my tongue but to wonder, aloud, how one could identify intelligent people, and isn’t it wonderful that we have stupid people in order to identify the intelligent. No stupid people, then no intelligent people either. Left here speechless, the usual reaction when a direct hit is scored with the progressive left.

  18. johno

    The LDP is the only true liberal party in Australia.

  19. Louis Hissink

    drat spell check – last sentence starts “Left her speechless…”

  20. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    Fotballer Goodes is offended by words.
    I am offended by actions. His.
    And the people who made him Australian of the Year.

  21. johanna

    That’s the point, as identified by Lizzie.

    It all comes down to the imposed hierarchy of being offended – one person’s feelings are worth more or less than another person’s feelings.

    None of us was consulted about the imposition of this hierarchy, let alone its components. It is apparently a given.

    If George Brandis wimps out about repealing this loathsome, totalitarian and unscientific nonsense, he is no better than Nicola Roxon.

  22. Tintarella di Luna

    Thanks Rafe for putting this up, eminently sensible from David Leyonhjelm and indeed Philippa it gives more offence to take offence when no offence was intended.

    It’s how we’re not at war with all our neighbours, it’s how we can have loving relationships with people whose views are so diametrically opposed to one’s own. God knows I could have spifflicated quite a few near and dears many times over but we still love each other more or less.

    Never thought I’d be quoting Sylvester Stallone but I like this one: If bad decorating was a hanging offence, there’d be bodies hanging from every tree.

  23. Tintarella di Luna

    If George Brandis wimps out about repealing this loathsome, totalitarian and unscientific nonsense, he is no better than Nicola Roxon.

    Too right, I hope all Cats are pawsed over their missives on exactly this point. Abbott too because he was at the IPA function when he and Brandis both spoke about getting rid of 18C from that odious low Act, the RDA

  24. Tintarella di Luna

    And Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who’d know a thing or two about being offended against makes this poignant observation:

    Avoiding offence means that we don’t accept each other as equals.

  25. candy

    To humiliate or intimidate is quite different from offending someone.

    Offending can be quite innocent in a sense and also not even ‘taken”, just a misspeak, but humiliate/intimidate is deliberate. I think George Brandis is keeping those 2 words in, which makes sense.

  26. A Lurker

    Brandis needs to be challenged over the allegation that he’s getting cold feet on repealing this.

    Bolta needs to get him on his show soon and ask him outright – or go over his head and quiz Abbott directly today on this matter because the Libs seem to be nervously shuffling their feet on a clear cut freedom issue.

  27. Mike of Marion

    South Australians – the State Election on March 2014 for the Legislative Council members.

    Group H on the LC Ballot Paper is the LDP.

  28. Alfonso

    Gee candy, I want 3rd world muslim immigration to Australia by any means to cease.
    Guess I just “intimidated” the resident population of 3rd world muslims who thanks to ‘ol George may well be able to criminalise that speech and use a legal prosecution to stop it.

    You are a very silly girl.

  29. Tel

    Offending can be quite innocent in a sense and also not even ‘taken”, just a misspeak, but humiliate/intimidate is deliberate. I think George Brandis is keeping those 2 words in, which makes sense.

    I dunno, humour is an essential part of life. The “Progressives” have for decades used jokes as a political tactic, check out all the times George W Bush was called a “chimp”. Since humour can also be subtle and people can be humiliated without realizing it at the time (that’s the best) trying to outlaw this is itself worth of ridicule.

  30. candy

    Gee candy, I want 3rd world muslim immigration to Australia by any means to cease.
    Guess I just “intimidated” the resident population of 3rd world muslims who thanks to ‘ol George may well be able to criminalise that speech and use a legal prosecution to stop it.

    I believe it’s in the phrasing and words used, Alfonso, not the actual point of view being offered.

  31. Roger

    Or, “No bastard calls me a bastard unless that bastard’s me mate!”

  32. Roger

    Or from Owen Wister’s novel, “The Virginian”:
    “It was now the Virginian’s turn to bet, or leave the game, and he did not speak at once.

    Therefore Trampas spoke. “Your bet, you son-of-a—.”

    The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: “When you call me that, SMILE.” And he looked at Trampas across the table.

    Yes, the voice was gentle. But in my ears it seemed as if somewhere the bell of death was ringing; and silence, like a stroke, fell on the large room.”

  33. johanna

    O/T, but thanks for that great piece of writing, Roger.

  34. Alfonso

    I don’t want activist Judges interpreting my “phrasing” as they choose for political purposes candy.
    You seek to put our freedom in the hands of Mordy and Kirby look alikes.

  35. I think pistols at dawn would cover it for me, thanks min. After all, an armed society is a civil society.

  36. brc

    Responsible -> response-able. Able to create a response. Which includes the ability to choose a response.

    It is impossible to be offended unless you choose to be offended. Being offended means that you let other people (including strangers) control your feelings. Which is a terrible way to live your life.

  37. Mick Gold Coast QLD

    From Elizabeth (Lizzie) B. at 8:18 am:

    “Fotballer Goodes is offended by words.
    I am offended by actions. His.
    And the people who made him Australian of the Year.”

    A direct hit, that.

  38. DrBeauGan

    Candy, you can be as mimsy as you like, but don’t you dare try to restrict my speech. Cowards and creeps can be intimidated by language adults cannot. An attempt to make the world safe for cowards and creeps is to give them a license to never grow up. The hell with that.

  39. .

    It would be great if Jim Fryar could do a guest post.

  40. candy

    DrBeauGan
    Andrew Bolt’s commenters and a lot here go on about the nasty stuff in the media, Tweets, newspaper articles written about Tony Abbott, and want it stopped. Andrew Bolt wants that stopped. It’s obscene material. I’m not knowing your particular opinion that, by the way, but it’s a common theme, okay?

    I can’t understand why that should be stopped, and yet there is call for absolute free speech and “humiliating/intimidating” is supposedly not relevant. I mean, how does all that work?
    One can’t have it both ways.

  41. Bons

    Name one LIVING Leftie who possesses a sense of humour.
    Fred Daly was the last genuine leftie humorist – that gene has now completely mutated into outrage, offense, aggression, dishonesty and just occasionally, a vague flutter with irony.
    One can only hope that further mutation shall evolve into mass depression.

  42. Demosthenes

    It is impossible to be offended unless you choose to be offended.

    I don’t understand that argument. Is it impossible to feel amused unless you choose to be? Do anger, happiness, fear (and all the other emotions) come only when called?

  43. candy

    Got to agree with Demosthenes above. One doesn’t summon up appropriate emotions at will, they just happen. You don’t say, eg, I choose not to fall in love with so and so. It just happens.

    Still, feeling offended can often be case of mistaken communication. But feeling intimidated or humiliated is something different again. There’s a more serious element to it.

  44. Alfonso

    Yawn…your “offence” is irrelevant and can never effect my freedom of speech.

    Try and understand.

  45. brc

    It is impossible to be offended unless you choose to be offended.

    I don’t understand that argument. Is it impossible to feel amused unless you choose to be? Do anger, happiness, fear (and all the other emotions) come only when called?

    Offense isn’t an emotion. It’s a choice, yes, you have the ability to choose anger, or humor, or fear. If you aren’t able to control when you take offense, well, thats great because there is an area of your life you can improve. We all have the ability to choose how our emotions come out. This is obviously true because everyone has different responses to the same inputs. It can be confronting for some people to realize this, but it’s empowering to do so. It’s not necessarily easy, but one of the principal differences between children and adults is the ability to control our emotions. Different people make it further from childhood than others.

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