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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 December 2004, 11:54 GMT
The right to be downright offensive
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Offensive graphic
"What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist," wrote Salman Rushdie. It's 15 years since Rushdie's novel, the Satanic Verses, earned the Booker Prize-winning novelist death threats, but the question persists.

The decision by Birmingham's Rep theatre to call off a play after protests by the city's Sikh community turned violent at the weekend, has reignited the debate on what, if any limits, should govern freedom of speech.

Only last week, the comedian Rowan Atkinson led a call defending "the right to offend", against government plans to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.

Atkinson argues the law would force "creative thinkers" to bite their tongue, and so produce a "veneer of tolerance concealing a snakepit of unaired and unchallenged views".

In November, the killing of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Holland appeared to highlight the pressures on free speech in a multicultural society. Van Gogh had recently made a film accusing Islam of promoting violence against women, and the man charged with his murder is thought to have radical Islamic links.

The right to freedom of speech is still relatively new and we are like adolescents, insufficiently mature in how we should use it
Henderson Mullin

There can be no question that one's right to be offensive and the absolute right to free speech are two sides of the same coin.

But in Britain, as in most countries, the absolute right to say whatever comes into one's head is an illusion. There are rules to limit what can be said.

Among them are laws against incitement to racial hatred, the common law prohibition of blasphemy, and libel laws. A few years ago Tony Blair's government tried to pass a law that would make it an offence to deny the Jewish Holocaust, although this was eventually shelved.

Yet despite these constraints, the British cherish a broad right to speak their minds.

Given these limits, is it not possible, as many Sikhs protesting in Birmingham have argued, to frame a law that allows freedom of speech while keeping in check our freedom to offend?

No, says Henderson Mullin, managing director of the campaign group Index on Censorship, although in the debate sparked by events in Birmingham he is irked by the championing in some quarters of the so-called right to offend.

Art at the extremes

"I get a bit disturbed when people talk about a right to offend. It's not a positive thing," says Mr Mullin. "The UN declaration talks about freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, not our freedom to offend."

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The crux of the matter is that one person's attempt to shock, outrage and offend is another's legitimate form of creative expression.

It's a murky area of discussion, one that is entirely subjective. But what about art at the very margins of popular acceptance; art that appears to almost everyone to serve no other purpose than to be offensive?

Away from the stage, it is the visual arts that seem most likely these days to elicit gasps of incredulity and disgust from the general public.

There's a tradition in the visual arts of works which are conceived primarily to offend, says John A Walker, author of a book about art and outrage.

"The Dada cabarets in Zurich during the First World War set out to offend the governing military classes," says Mr Walker. Even Edouard Manet, he adds, set out to offend by challenging the 19th Century taboos of nudity with works such as Dejeuner sur L'Herbe and Olympia.

Today, the "growing deluge" of artists graduating from college, means many resort to causing offence, says Mr Walker, simply as a means of standing out from the crowd.

Just ignore it

Daily Telegraph art critic Richard Dorment despairs of the trend for art that, in his eyes at least, sets out simply to offend. As a critic, he has wrestled with how to respond - after all, condemning it unreservedly runs the risk of generating further publicity. And as the modern proverb goes: no publicity is bad publicity.

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Confronted with a picture of a crucifix floating in urine, by the photographer Andreas Serrano, Mr Dorment was so incensed he simply refused to review it.

"It offended me personally. It was just the artist longing for publicity," says Mr Dorment.

A similar argument has been levelled at the response to the Birmingham play Behzti - such rigorous condemnation has raised its profile. If the play is staged again in the city, as a rival theatre company has pledged to do, there will be no shortage of people queuing for tickets.

Henderson Mullin believes such examples reveal how we are struggling to handle the enormous responsibility of free speech.

"It's damaging that people see free expression simply as a right to cause offence," says Mr Mullin. "The right to freedom of speech is still relatively new and we are like adolescents, insufficiently mature in how we should use it.

"But censorship is never the answer. Whatever offence people at the margins seek to cause, you have to trust that there are enough people at the core of society who will not be swayed to the extremes."

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