Rethink idea of 'right not to be offended'

Singapore society should rethink the idea of the alleged "right not to be offended" on the basis of race or religion.
Singapore society should rethink the idea of the alleged "right not to be offended" on the basis of race or religion.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that, as part of the "fundamental assurance" that one gets in Singapore, "members of faith groups will be protected from hate speech and unacceptable offensive speech" (S'pore has own approach to offensive speech, April 2).

Speech advocating violence or intentional vilification based on real or perceived group characteristics is unacceptable.

However, Singapore society should rethink the idea of the alleged "right not to be offended" on the basis of race or religion.

While freedom of speech and religion are constitutional rights, there is no constitutional right "not to be offended".

Not only is such an alleged right highly subjective and grants incentives to certain groups to fan or trump up outrage to censor perspectives they disagree with, but it is also potentially counterproductive.

According to the 2016 Channel News Asia-Institute of Policy Studies survey on race relations, 64 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that it was very hard to discuss issues related to race without someone getting offended.

About half of all respondents, including minorities, thought that minorities were being over-sensitive about racial issues.

In any aspect of human life, it is virtually impossible to discuss anything of deep importance without potentially offending someone.

Ideas which cause discomfort and distress may in turn sow the seeds for moral and social reform.

In a speech in 2012, comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson said: "We need to build our immunity to taking offence, so that we can deal with the issues that perfectly justified criticism can raise."

In an age where tribalism and identity politics have threatened to divide societies, respect for the dignity of all human beings is paramount.

This includes respect for the dignity of difference, regardless of not only race and religion, but also of diverse views and opinions, even those one disagrees with.

Darius Lee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2019, with the headline 'Rethink idea of 'right not to be offended''. Print Edition | Subscribe