Five common defences for the 'right to be offensive'


Matilda Dixon-Smith

And all the reasons why they don't stack up.

Mark Latham believes he has a "right to offend".

Mark Latham believes he has a "right to offend". Photo: Channel 9

There is growing consternation about an assault on our "right to offend". Apparently, everything from the reprimand of cricketer Chris Gayle for sexual harassment to the increased use of trigger warnings is an attack on our right to free speech.

On Friday, former Labor leader Mark Latham premiered his new Triple M podcast, 'Lathamland', where, among many dangerous and idiotic statements, he defended the right to offend amid "the curse of political correctness in Australia".

"There's been a real surge in political correctness over the past couple of years in Australia," Latham bleated, "and, quite frankly, it's pissing off a lot of people who don't like being sneered at, who don't like being called racist or sexist, who don't like being told what they can and can't say."

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis.

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis. Photo: Daniel Munoz

Latham has adopted this stance to defend his use of the word "Negro", and his bizarre persistent attack on former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty.


Latham's commentary lines up with literary critic Peter Craven's recent call to arms against the "tyranny of opinion", and the sentiments of Attorney General George Brandis, who, in 2014, announced that he would repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act because "people do have a right to be bigots".

Latham laments: "What's it come to when someone says, 'I don't like being called that', and you can't say it? It's a denial of freedom of speech."

Free speech is important, and it's true that insults and offence are a part of life. But does free speech prevent us from calling out bigots whose words injure vulnerable individuals - or speakers, like Latham, who are just plain wrong?

There's a lot at stake in the "right to offend", so let's unpack some key arguments for the defence.

1. Save our free speech

Free speech is not a constitutional right in Australia, as it is in the US; nevertheless, it is a tenet of our society. The freedom to speak our minds without fear of persecution is essential in the rally for change, or when speaking out against injustice. It stimulates debate and understanding. However, that tenet is rightfully restricted when the speaker's intent is to humiliate or intimidate.

When someone speaks out in hate, calling them out is not "censorship". For freedom of speech to work, we must also be free to push back against ignorance, to correct bigots.

It's right to stand up against a man who wrongfully asserts that, when it comes to domestic violence, "Surveys show women are safer than ever before, that [...] they're no worse than they were 20 or 30 years ago." It's right to question whether the bile that Latham periodically spews should be circulated so widely, and so unchallenged, on a nationally broadcasted podcast.

It's also right to question who really has access to this "free speech". Certainly not the journalists, staff and volunteers on Nauru, who are routinely punished for their attempts to draw attention to the atrocities taking place in the island's detention centres.

Bigoted impositions from powerful people should not go unchallenged at the expense of those who most need protecting, all in the name of "free speech".

2. "Sticks and stones will break my bones..."

As the recent debate over trigger warnings proves, some people truly value "thick skin". Increasingly, trigger warnings are being used by university professors to warn trauma-affected students about potentially distressing material. To many, this is "coddling", creating a new class of intellectuals too cosseted to engage in real, challenging debate.

Likewise, the argument for thicker skin is popular when it comes to the right to offend. "What happened to sticks and stones may break my bones?"

I think we're long past pretending that words cannot hurt us.

When Latham asserts that men use domestic violence as a "coping mechanism to get over all the crap in their lives", he invalidates and endangers already vulnerable domestic violence victims by perpetuating his own "lack of understanding and knowledge of this complex issue".

So what is the true cost of the right to offend? The taunts of "sticks and stones" and "thick skin" feel a little flimsy when someone's safety is at stake.

3. "Political correctness gone mad"

This is a common argument for the right to offend: that opposition to "controversial" ideas is, as Latham puts it, "political correctness gone berserk".

But political correctness is really a litmus test for social consciousness. It's imperative to test ideas, to assess their validity and their impact, and to judge their relevance. "Political correctness" is not a dirty phrase; it's simply a way for us to ensure that the vulnerable are protected.

The problem is Latham's comments aren't "un-PC"; they're simply wrong. When 79 Australian women are killed by violence in a year, being "worried that the domestic violence debate is being used as a Trojan horse to push a left-wing feminist position" is just factually inaccurate.

The national domestic violence campaign is not a "Trojan horse"; it's a life-saving mission. Surely that is far more important than the right of an entitled man to say and do whatever he pleases without consequence?

4. Don't fall for the "leftist/feminist/minority agenda"

Latham's rallying cry is also a warning: that the domestic violence campaign is "being run for political reasons. It's left feminists pushing what they call their definition of patriarchy. They think Australia is a patriarchy."

To Latham, and to many other bigots who fear that their privilege is at stake, organised social movements against injustice are "agendas" trafficking in falsehood. "I worry that in the demonisation of men that Rosie Batty is causing more harm than good," he says.

Does Latham know that in NSW an average of 34 women per day experience domestic violence? Does he know that for 46 per cent of women experiencing physical violence, the perpetrator was a current or previous partner?

This is not Rosie Batty-concocted conspiracy; it's a response to the morbid national nightmare of men's violence against women, and it absolutely should be on the national "agenda".

5. "The right to be a bigot"

When Brandis proposed amendments to Section 18C, he cited "the right to be a bigot" as his defence. Amid the ensuing uproar, Senator Nova Peris pegged the amendments as "a green light to racism and all other sorts of hate speech".

With the right to offend, who are we really protecting? The reality is, some people are allowed to speak out more than others; some voices are louder; some speech is "freer".

Right now Latham is allowed a widely accessible podcast to air his dangerous and inaccurate opinions; before that he was a regular guest on Channel 9's The Verdict; and before that he was a columnist for the Australian Financial Review. By giving him a platform, unchallenged, we allow him influence and authority.

Just like with Andrew Bolt's harmful comments about Indigenous people, Latham's influential voice erases those dissenting calls coming from victims and activists campaigning against domestic violence.

It's important to protect our right to speak our minds, but not at the expense of those vulnerable people who are affected when powerful individuals seek to denigrate and intimidate them. The right to offend only goes so far before it becomes a sadistic tool of oppression.