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I'm Offended By Everyone Taking Offence

30/01/2016 6:43 AM AEDT | Updated July 15, 2016 12:51
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Invasion Day. Survival Day. Day of Mourning. Do these terms offend you?

How about National Dickhead Day?

On Monday, Matt Chun, an artist and café owner in the NSW seaside village of Bermagui, wrote a message for his customers on a blackboard. "Yes, we're open on National Dickhead Day." A photo of his sign was posted on Facebook and quickly went viral. The inevitable public outcry was swift and fierce, a fusillade of vile abuse and even death threats from faceless, well, the appropriate term would be dickheads.

Were they within their rights to respond like this? Was Matt within his rights to express his opinion in the first place?

Back in the bad old days, the only people with rights were the nobility, who were almost exclusively white and male. Over the last century, rights have been ladled out slowly but surely to others. Women's rights, civil rights, animal rights, gay rights, fetal rights. All of these have been momentous but hard-fought advances. Today, many pockets of resistance remain where white males still believe they lord it over others but we're at a wonderful stage of history where, for the first time ever, all of us are equal as individuals. In the eyes of the law, no person is greater or lesser than any other.

The renowned philosopher Steven Pinker attributed the significant decline in societal violence over the last 50 years, particularly in Western nations, to the rights revolution and the feminisation of society. Three cheers for that.

Naturally, there have been some nasty side-effects. This is always the case when attempting to cure highly-contagious diseases which end in -ism.

But everyone is now equal. At least on paper. We are all free. We are all individuals. This apotheosis of the individual has occurred in concert with exponential advances in social media technology, allowing each of us to project our voices and inflict our opinions upon whomsoever we choose. It is truly power to the people.

Aye, there's the rub. While we are all created equal, many of us do not understand the responsibility tied to this equality. Being unused to having a voice, we get eager and overstep boundaries. We take our selfish thoughts and air them like they are gospel. Especially when some of us have grown accustomed to feeling more equal than others.

The result is a society where we have evolved into three types of people. Those who give offence, those who take offence, and those (like me) who sit on the fence.

Unfortunately, in the big, bad world of the internet, the third category is in the minority. Godwin's Law rules supreme. Every interaction between strangers will eventually involve someone comparing someone else to either Hitler or Nazism. And you know what? I've had enough. I'm getting off the fence because I find this crazy offensive culture, well, offensive.

The response to Matt Chun's National Dickhead Day proved his point and then some. The dickheads appeared from out of the woodwork. The sign was giving out free offence and people were taking it with open arms. Was it a step too far? Or was it just one voice among millions, a simple statement which would not have raised anywhere near as much ire prior to the advent of social media? Whatever the case, if it's not your cup of java, just go to another café. Talk with your feet, not with hate or violence.

On the other hand, if you think National Dickhead Day falls short of the mark, you can always try Brendon Burns' piece titled 'Why Australia Day Can F**k Off'. Offended now? If so, cut your losses and don't read it. But if you're willing to try a different point of view, enter it with an open mind and keep your fingers off the keyboard until your blood has ceased boiling.

The internet provides us with an endless smorgasbord of topics by which to be offended. Let's take another recent example. On Australia Day, rugby league player Mitchell Pearce was filmed being obnoxiously drunk, including simulating a sex act with a dog.

Should we be offended by this? Was the dog offended? The answer is a big NO. As in, Not Offended.

Pearce's actions were disrespectful, lewd and stupid, but not offensive. Offensive is a nothing-word. Offence is something felt by a third party who is not directly involved in a situation. If you're involved, if that was your dog, you'd be disgusted and angry, not offended. If you're patriotic, if you truly love Australia, then National Dickhead Day shouldn't offend you. It should make you stop and think, and maybe chuckle. To quote Stephen Fry, "saying 'I'm rather offended by that' has no reason to be respected as a phrase". The concept is as illusory as that other nothing-word, unAustralian.

Offence arises from a personal opinion being challenged, and often being found wanting. We are entitled to our opinions but we are not entitled to force them onto others. Social media and the trolls who live in its labyrinth have been largely responsible for this offence offensive. Each citizen with a keyboard or smartphone now has a voice that can be heard across the globe with a few clicks, and opportunists are making the most of this freedom. There is a firestorm of comments aimed at offending others because they are different from us and because we can bully in anonymity. It is like a huge positive feedback loop, spiralling into vitriol and vilification.

We have the power to break the circuit. To react only when we understand the other person's point of view or to not react at all. But when should a statement be ignored as an expression of free speech and when should it be dealt with as an incitement to violence, as racial abuse, or whatever the case may be? Where do we draw the line?

That is a tough question. In the past century, the line has moved a long way as society has become gradually more permissive. We might not all agree with National Dickhead Day but at least we're free to discuss it openly. Although death threats going unpunished and even being ignored are a sign that we are perhaps too permissive.

If Mitchell Pearce had been a drunken fool in an earlier century, he would have been called a cad, slapped across the cheek with a glove, and possibly met his death in a duel.

Fortunately for him, we live in an enlightened and enrightened age and he might, at worst, need to find a new career. The 21st century may be an offensive of political correctness, internet trolling and shaming, and bad behaviour going viral, but these scourges are infinitely better than a rapier through the ribs or a bullet through the brain, or something decidedly worse if you're not a white male.

So let the vulgar voices vent. It is the price we pay for freedom. If you do find yourself goaded into responding, try to express your feelings and opinions respectfully. Take others' feelings and beliefs into consideration, even if they are dickheads. After all, it takes a village to raise a dickhead.

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