Saturday, 26 September 2009

Reasonably Offensive

It might not seem like the politest thing to do. Imagine that one found out that, for example, a guest at a restaurant you were running was a student of anthropology, or, much more concerning, a member of the Respect 'party'. Despite the obvious and understandable feeling of pity that one would hold for this poor person, most of us would choose to keep our mouths firmly shut. It just doesn't seem proper that when we bring them the bill we might point out they could have studied something real, or that Mr Galloway is one of the most self-aggrandising men to have stood for elected office.

However, and this would appear to be a much misunderstood point, because something is not polite does not mean it should be legislated against. Your author is certainly not religious, but would gladly defend the right of any others to hold and convey their beliefs, even if they are distasteful to me. If someone wishes to deprive another person of their right to liberty, freedom of association or their own freedom of speech then clearly the issue has moved on from doling out offence to the oppression of a citizen. This would then be unacceptable.

So it was with some disappointment that this story wandered through my browser window this week. Mr and Mrs Vogelenzang, the (Christian) operators of a B&B, chose to engage in a discussion with a (Muslim) customer. They described Muslim dress as 'bondage' and are alleged, although deny, to have called Mohammed a warlord. Zero marks for customer service here, and a quick trip to TripAdvisor to write that brutal review and assign one blob for the service score - how cathartic! Not somewhere to recommend to friends.

However, the recourse chosen by the unnamed guest was not a decision to change her hotel-booking policy, but instead a trip to the nearest police station. Soon afterwards the decorously-challenged coupled were arrested, interviewed and charged with "a religiously aggravated public order offence". The lack of hyphenation here leads your author to wonder if it is the public offence order that has become aggravated by religion. Regardless of how improper we find the couple's behaviour, surely their right to freely express themselves, providing they do not discriminate against their guests, should be protected. My good colleague has previously argued in favour of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. I am not sure where he stands now.

It is vital to separate between causing offence and causing actual harm. Next time your blogger enters a restaurant feel free to insult my atheism, or attack my distaste for nationalism. Just don't expect a good write up on timeout.com afterwards.