Heather du Plessis-Allan is a columnist for the Herald on Sunday

Heather du Plessis-Allan: Being offensive is not a crime

Lewis Road Milk was slammed for cheekily using the label "breast milk", to fundraise for cancer cures.
Lewis Road Milk was slammed for cheekily using the label "breast milk", to fundraise for cancer cures.

There's an example often quoted by those warning that free speech is under threat.
It's the "indigenous with a capital i" story.

In late 2013 at the University of California, Professor Val Rust corrected a student's spelling of the word "indigenous from an upper- to lower-case "i".

The student took offence, feeling the correction was "ideologically motivated".

Professor Rust was accused of racism and 25 students staged a sit-in protest.
Extreme as the example is in its ridiculousness, it's just one in a long list of disproportionate reactions at US universities.

Concerns this kind of sensitivity is now rising in New Zealand has prompted 27 prominent Kiwis to sign a letter this week rejecting the "forceful silencing of dissenting or unpopular views" on university campuses.

The diverse group - including Dame Tariana Turia and Dr Don Brash - are also concerned at Human Rights Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy's recent call for a review of "hate speech" law.

There is, thankfully, now no chance of such a law. The Government was never keen on it and after the release of the letter, the Human Rights Commission has also backed right away from the idea.

But the shutting down of unpopular views is still a trigger constantly waiting to be pulled.

AUT professor Dr Paul Moon - who wrote the letter - points to the forced closure of the European Students Club at Auckland University as an example.

The club was criticised for its slogan and logo.

The slogan "our pride is our honour and loyalty" was apparently too similar to the Nazi slogan "my honour is called loyalty". In the same way that the sentence "you are hot" is similar to "are you hot?"

The club's logo used Celtic imagery, offensive because white supremacists, Irish bars, Irish cover bands, Irish jewellery makers, Irish T-shirt printers and bad tattoo artists also use Celtic imagery.

I'm not defending the European Club. I don't think it was a smart or even innocent idea. Despite the tenuous Nazi links, there may in fact have been racist undertones. But threatening its members until the club shut down was not the right way to deal with the situation.

Outside of Auckland University, the same shouting-down is happening, leaving many in the workplace scared of being labelled racist or sexist.

In just the past few years, there have been well-publicised dramas over words or ideas that offended someone.

The Mad Butcher didn't deserve to get caught up in a race row over his quip on Waiheke Island. Lewis Road Milk didn't deserve a bashing from breast-feeding advocates after cheekily relabelling its milk as "breast milk", to raise money for breast cancer cures.

And former Massey University Chancellor Chris Kelly didn't deserve to leave his job for trying to explain in an interview why more vets are graduating but fewer are staying in the job longterm. It's because women quit their careers to have kids. It may be statistically true, but the consensus seems to have been that he shouldn't have said it.

There are complex reasons why these shout-downs are happening, but some of it at least has to do with social media. There was a time when the thin-skinned among us would have had their hurts moderated by the crowd, but now they have found like-minded people on Facebook and Twitter. They validate each other and draw the courage to protest.

The perceived errors are small errors, if errors at all. They are not hate speech and they are not worthy of public body slams.

We will all be offended at some point and mostly we just have to suck that up.

As Salman Rushdie says, "Nobody has the right to not be offended. If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people."

- Herald on Sunday

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Heather du Plessis-Allan is a columnist for the Herald on Sunday

Heather du Plessis-Allan is a thirty-something living between Auckland and Wellington. She has more than a decade's experience hosting and reporting on TV and radio. Heather's worked in Parliament's Press Gallery, covered the 2012 London Olympic Games, and reported from as far afield as Antarctica.

Read more by Heather du Plessis-Allan

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