The Right to Cause Offence

There has been much debate in the media recently about free speech and the offence it may cause to others. In an article by Boris Johnson MP in the column that he writes for the Daily Telegraph he said that he felt “fully entitled” to expect women to remove face coverings when talking to him at his MP surgery, and expressed his opinion that the burka is oppressive and that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.

Some were outraged at his comments, while others supported his right to free speech, even if it does cause offence. There are three separate issues here that need to be considered:–

  1. Security concerns about covering the face.
  2. The right to wear whatever ones wishes.
  3. The need to conform to the society in which one lives.

There are legitimate concerns about security. In airports, banks, or wherever there are security checks, it should be obligatory to remove face coverings. The law must be enforced impartially. If a bank or shop requires the removal of crash helmets and masks, no exception can be made on religious grounds as this would make it too easy for robbers or terrorists to circumvent security arrangements.

The right to wear whatever one wishes has limits that are determined by laws and bylaws, dress codes, and local customs. There are naturist beaches where anyone can go entirely naked, but elsewhere one would be charged with public indecency. The Naked Rambler has spent many years in prison because he refuses to comply with the law. There have been many legal cases fought over the right to wear religious symbols or the right not to conform to dress codes at work. In most cases, the right of a company to make a dress code a contractual obligation have been upheld by the courts.

The UK government rejected a claim to prevent firms requiring women to wear high heels, claiming that the existing law on sex discrimination was adequate. However, the law is not enforced universally and many dress codes for women still reinforce sexist stereotypes that are outdated. A dress code that requires a woman to look sexy is unreasonable in most jobs. Unfortunately, western businesses have exploited the sexuality of women for so long that changing cultural attitudes is now very difficult. Air hostesses, waitresses, bar staff, receptionists, etc., are expected to look attractive to men, and there is no doubt that the physical appearance of female employees does affect the profitability of such businesses. Dress codes to protect workers’ health, e.g. steel-capped boots are fine, but no dress code should damage a worker’s health.

The third point about the need to conform to local custom is not something that can or should be enforced by the law. It is a matter of polite and civilised behaviour to assimilate into the community in which one lives or wherever one visits. When tourists visit foreign countries and if immigrants wish to integrate into their chosen country they will need to adjust their behaviour. To be insensitive to cultural norms is a sign of an uncivilised person. Those who don’t communicate with their neighbours are rightly regarded with suspicion. Anyone seeking permanent residence in a new country one should learn its language, history, and culture. It is not a violation of one’s human rights if one is not allowed to smoke in certain places, to play music in a library, or to wear shoes in a temple, mosque, or gurdwara. Private businesses, professional bodies, public swimming baths, Internet forums, and many other organisations make their own rules that members are expected to follow and may exclude them if they refused to abide by their regulations.

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