As early as probably 20 years ago, the concept of a ‘protected category’ was probably unthinkable. Think of the questions people would have had: What would that phrase mean? How would it be policed? Are there implications of restrictions on freedom of expression?
Nowadays, we’ve probably had our answers: 1) Groups who have a history of being abused and marginalised on the basis that they deviate from a so-called ‘norm’ are what it means to be a protected category; 2) It’s policed both in the legal system and casually by citizens who ostracize those who don’t follow these rules; and 3) good lord yes, it has had an immeasurable impact on freedom of speech. These factors have muddied the waters of social acceptability, blurring the lines between right and wrong in what we can say.
We’re all just monkeys in shoes
The logic behind the concept of a protected category is, in my opinion, fairly sound and justified; we have long histories of abusing those who we consider ‘others’ or ‘outsiders’, stemming from a evolutionary pre-set to defend our own gene pool. By attacking those with differing characteristics to us, we were strengthening our own long-term survival. We can see the roots of this genetic disposition growing through human history; our treatment of other races, religions and bodies has been violent, brutal and, according to our modern moral compasses, wrong. In the modern world, our rational, cognitive brains treat our biology as a frustrating shadow in the background, and we are able to recognise that smaller power groups need some form of legal protection. However, the complication arises when we have the discussion of whether our rights to free speech (another important construction that clambers over the monkey in our head) are compromised by our desires to give protection to smaller social groups.
An important caveat…
Before we begin, I just want to stress that I’m pro free speech and, whilst I do think there’s a debate to had as to what is and is not offensive, I also fear the rising tide of permanent offense we seem to be in, and the shift we’re facing towards controlled speech. I also want to stress that I’m not a member of a category that requires legal protection and, as such, undoubtedly misunderstand parts of the debate; I cannot speak for someone else’s experience.
Putting freedom of speech to one side
Now that I’ve laid down some ground rules, I want to put the issue of freedom of speech to one side for a minute as, whilst it’s central to the ‘offense’ debate on the whole, I want to consider the possibility of whether or not a person within a protected category can be offensive towards their own group.
Think about that for a minute. If I make comments about wanting other white men to die, purely on the basis that they are white men, can that be considered a hate crime? Equally, if Diane Abbott said that she thought all black women were responsible for unemployment because they refuse to work, would she also be guilty? Certainly, if we turn the phrases around so that I criticize black women and Abbott expresses her murderous intent towards white men, we have a problem; so is the same true of the opposite?
Wading into the muddied waters
The answer feels very much like a yes and a no. On the one hand, how can I possibly be offensive to a group I’m a member of? It would be a sort of self-harm or destruction, but the extent to which it’s offensive is debateable. On the other hand, equating it to self-harm assumes that the opinions are specific to the individual rather than tarring a whole community with the same prejudiced brush, the very essence of what the invention of a protected category is supposed to avoid; making judgements on people based on factors that exclude the individual is unjustified and reckless. Following that train of logic, someone within that group would be fairly justified in taking offense and, from that perspective, it’s totally unacceptable for us to be making across-the-board assumptions about other people, regardless of our own position.
With that in mind, I feel I’m leaning towards believing it’s more than possible for someone within a category to abuse it, but I must admit that I don’t know the answer to this question; I think it’s too complex for me to give a definitive answer to. Certainly, circling back to add freedom of speech into the mix, we need a better solution to offense than banning it altogether. For me, I’m an advocate of first calling out someone’s prejudiced comments and, if they refuse to hear my side of the argument, ostracizing the people whose views I find repugnant – which, incidentally, would include people within a protected category spouting offensive rhetoric about the category they belong to. I guess that answers my question for me.