Some people’s idea of [free speech] is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.- Winston Churchill

Since the brutal and senseless murder of George Floyd in the US, by a disturbed and sadistic man in a police uniform, people around the world have taken to the streets to demonstrate against what they regard as systemic racism. These events have given an impetus to a long-standing societal discussion on what is acceptable in popular culture.

Can we use racist stereotypes for comedic purposes?

Does freedom of speech give us the right to be offensive?

For many sources of entertainment, they have now decided to take down shows and films that some see as racist, transphobic or just plain `offensive`. Most notably for me, since it was the theme of my Bar Mitzvah, Little Britain, a shock comedy, which indiscriminately offends, was removed from iPlayer, Netflix and BritBox. A spokesperson from the BBC said, “There's a lot of historical programming available on BBC iPlayer which we regularly review. Times have changed since Little Britain first aired, so it is not currently available on BBC iPlayer."[1]

Little Britain was not the last to fall. HBO Max decided to remove Gone with the Wind (although they are planning to bring it back with a historical context introduction), Netflix have removed The League of Gentlemen and All4 have removed Bo'Selecta. Other shows and films have also been removed. For good measure, some of the creative artists behind these works have issued retrospective apologies.

However, is this it? Is this the limit? If not, where does this stop? Will we censor Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice"? Charles Dickens’ "Oliver"? Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "The King and I"? "The Two Ronnies"? Sacha Baron Cohen’s "Ali G and Borat"? Larry David’s "Curb your Enthusiasm"? Ricky Gervais’ "The Office"? Will we eventually censor brilliant and daring writing out of existence?

You may ask, however, why is this such a problem? Some may say in the year 2020, laughing or mocking someone for their ethnicity or identity, is no longer acceptable, and therefore shows and films that contain this material should be removed. Indeed, perhaps you are right that it is offensive to be using such material in comedy and writing. But is it right for society to censor individuals that do? Most fundamentally who arbitrates on the question of what is offensive?

In many Islamic nations, it is offensive for a woman to break certain modesty laws and dress as she pleases. This is certainly the case in Iran, where, according to an Amnesty International report[2], state sanctioned “morality checkpoints” exist to identify women who do not dress appropriately. This report finds that these checkpoints are places “where state agents will decide if you have failed to comply with the state’s strict dress code for women. If you “fail” their test, you may be arrested and, in some cases, even tortured and sentenced to a prison term or flogging.” This report adds that there are “countless stories of the “morality” police slapping women across the face, beating them with batons and throwing them into police vans because of the way they are dressed.”

These women are punished because the way they dress is offensive to the Islamic state’s idea on female modesty.

In Saudi Arabia, openly LGBT individuals and those who have premarital or extramarital sex, can be punished with the death penalty. Why? Because their activity is offensive to the Islamic regime’s laws on sex and relationships.

In North Korea, it is offensive to the state leaders to criticise the administration or express yourself in a way that doesn’t conform to the standards set by the state. We all know what punishment transgressors receive there.

Regardless, each society has its own conception on what constitutes offence. But evidently, as these examples demonstrate, the hallmark of any dystopian, totalitarian, and autocratic state is that it denies you the right to be what the states defines as offensive. Therefore, current efforts by large segments of our media to restrict the right of individuals to be offensive should ring alarm bells. And although, we may get offended by certain material in our society, being offended is the price we pay for the precious freedoms we cherish.

The alternative is tyranny. And I think every well-reasoned person would rather have freedom with offence than tyranny with suffering. To quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

However, this isn’t just about safeguarding individual liberty and human rights, protecting the right to be offensive is the way we ensure a progressive, not regressive society. From Jesus to Aristotle to Hobbes to the Suffragettes, what would society look like if it were not for individuals like these and others who were willing to challenge the orthodoxies of their age by advancing ideas that were seen as heretical, radical or offensive? It is clear without the chutzpah of brave individuals, there would be no freedom of expression, freedom of press, universal suffrage, or individual autonomy. We are indebted to those who were willing to "offend".

Moreover, consider what our society would look if it were bereft of "offensiveness". Would it be one of enlightenment and exploration, or one of isolation and ignorance? In John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, he argued, “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit that the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

When we challenge certain ideas or promote others, we risk offending. But it is through the medium of free thinking and questioning, that society becomes innovative, advanced, and progressive. Just look at the societies that deny their people the right to do this – they are, on the whole, primitive, intellectually inferior and disadvantaged.

The top ten most educated countries in the world are all countries that are free, open democracies, that embrace intellectual freedom.[3] The least educated are police states.[4] Societies that embrace ideas that can offend do better. The evidence is incontrovertible.

Some remain unconvinced and maintain their support for censorship on what individuals say or write because they `offend` the world of academics and champagne socialists, the new self-anointed authority on defining what is `offence` in this postmodernist era. This is best illustrated on university campuses.

A survey, conducted by Spiked in 2018, found that of 115 surveyed universities across the UK, 54% actively censor speech. The 2018 report also reveals that 20 universities have banned some newspapers, 21 have banned speakers, 16 have suspended a number of student societies, 17 have banned adverts, and 9 have banned some types of fancy dress. [5]

These statistics are alarming. Academic institutions, which should be the home of intellectual inquiry, have now become the enemy of curiosity and discovery. In the words of Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said “A generation is being raised not to believe in freedom of speech, but rather, that they should have freedom from speech.”[6]

I wonder what students at universities in China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh, who put their lives on the line fighting for intellectual freedom, think of these `safe space` fanatics? For many of our students, they forget how lucky they are to be in the West.

The sad reality of today is that the so-called `Liberal` on campus believes in free speech with no boundaries, but with limits. Our campuses have become places of intellectual apartheid.

We must therefore do away with censorship of ideas. It is vital if we want to protect not just the future of liberty in the West, but also the integrity of free thinking and the marketplace of ideas. Failure to do so will lead to a regressive Western world, not a progressive one.

Of course, a system that allows ideas that offend to be voiced, will lead some to put forward deplorable ideas. But we do not defeat tyranny with more tyranny. We defeat bad ideas with better ideas. We destroy the principles of totalitarianism with the principle of freedom.

Nothing I say diminishes the tragedy that happened with George Floyd. But there is a risk of another tragedy arising out of this.

“Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might.”


Harry Saul Markham is a student in London and the director of a Jewish educational movement.