Thin skin can bruise too easily


It was Eleanor Roosevelt who came out with that old line: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

More than 50 years later, it seems we’ve completely forgotten what she was talking about, particularly in terms of taking offence.

We allow ourselves to be offended by almost anyone these days, from Bart Simpson to Hone Harawira. We take offence at the drop of a hat. We take offence on behalf of people we don’t even know.

It’s as if we have no say in the matter.

I only raise the issue while following a skirmish across the Tasman, where one of the founding members of the ABC’s The Chaser’s War on Everything has not only attacked the government broadcaster for trying to sanitise comedy but has also told those viewers who were offended by some of the show’s skits to, er, get a life.

You may remember reading about The Chasers previously in this column.

Spawned from a satirical newspaper, the Aussie laughfest consistently stretches the boundaries and was taken off air for two weeks this year after public outrage over its Make A Realistic Wish skit, involving terminally-ill children.

That was the sketch suggesting that, as the sick kids were going to die anyway, it wasn’t really worth spending much money on expensive gifts. It showed a girl being given a pencil case instead of a trip to Disneyland, and another offered a stick instead of a meeting with High School Musical star Zac Efron.

Apparently surprised by reaction to the gag, and under pressure from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, founding funnyman Julian Morrow apologised unreservedly. But last week he qualified his apology, saying it was meant only for those personally affected by childhood cancer.

“If you are one of those people, I want to reiterate my sincerest apology to you,’’ he said during the annual Andrew Olle Media Lecture. “But the next category [of stakeholders], those other people who fancied they might have been offended by the sketch, is in my view different.

“The inevitable corollary to freedom of speech is that there is no such thing as a general right to not be offended. So to be honest, perhaps too honest, if you were just offended by that sketch I’m not really sorry.’’

As much I squirm at the coldness of his humour, it’s hard not to agree he has a point. There’s never been any immunity from being slagged off, after all. If we’re going to embrace the virtues of freedom of speech, we’d better get used to the consequences. That is, if people are to be allowed to say what they like, the flipside is an implied consent to be offended.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Morrow might make strange bedfellows but it seems to me that they’re almost talking about the same thing – someone’s right to agree or disagree with an issue, without voluntarily transforming themselves into a victim.

Yes, I know, there will be some who can’t possibly remain unaffected, due to their circumstances. Fair enough.
But everyone else has a choice.