Rights and Responsibilities

A quick thought about the nature of ‘responsibility’.

In the Meechan case this week the judge at Airdrie Sheriff Court said:

In my view it is a reasonable conclusion that the video is grossly offensive. The description of the video as humorous is no magic wand. This court has taken the freedom of expression into consideration. But the right to freedom of expression also comes with responsibility.

On the Sky News debate programme The Pledge, presenter Nick Ferrari echoed this sentiment.

With the right to free speech comes a responsibility to use it wisely. This a sentiment I hear a lot and it seems sensible. Personally, I am not convinced it is the rhetorical silver bullet that most people think it is. I can think of examples where a speaker might actually think it very responsible to mock or to offend someone who they believe deserves it. And when journalists expose Official Secrets (as the Guardian did when publishing the testimony of Edward Snowden) there were plenty of people ready to call this kind of publication irresponsible. So ‘responsibility’ is in the eye of the beholder.

But ‘responsibility’ also implies some kind of free choice. In the Meechan case, the choice was whether to the risk of offending people was worth the joke. For what its worth (and for the avoidance of doubt) I think he made the wrong call. As Ricky Gervais said, Meechan could have chosen another cue to make the dog salute.

But my opinion doesn’t matter. Meechan judged that it was worth it. But it turns out that his opinion doesn’t matter either, because an actual judge decided differently! Meechan will now be punished for his choice.

“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black” said Henry Ford, apparently.

The judgement in this case suggests that Meechan could have made any choice with regards to the Nazi Pug joke… so long as the choice was to refrain from making the joke at all.

So responsibility only has meaning and moral worth if it is actually possible to make the irresponsible choice. If we preclude that possibility, then it is no longer a question of responsibility, but conformism.

2 Replies to “Rights and Responsibilities”

  1. I remember (from across the Atlantic) when people were expecting this sort of thing from your Terrorism Act of 2006. I don’t believe it actually covered fictional portrayals of terror but many thought it did.

    Regardless, scifi writers responded with their “Glorifying Terrorism” anthology:
    https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2007/feb/16/scifisrealitycheck

    That book’s cover is very offensive — and appropriately so.

    It’s a pity the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 didn’t get the same treatment. It’s interesting that both laws passed the same year.

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