Recently, I attended an event which began with a choir performing several songs. Later on that same day, I learned that a number of attendees had been offended by the irreligious nature of several of the songs and where minded to complain to the organiser of the event.
The above incident caused me to consider to what extent (if any) I (as a poet) am under an obligation to avoid causing offense. Should I censor my writing and/or performances to avoid upsetting my readers and/or listeners?
I am, by instinct a liberal as regards such matters. If you don’t like a book, a television programme, or a poetry performance then you can stop reading the work in question, turn over to another channel or walk out of the performance.
Having said the above, where young children are present it is, of course wrong to expose them to adult material. I have never known of a poetry performance where it has not been made clear as regards those who will be attending. Of course where a performance is advertised as being suitable for all ages, young children etc, it would be wholly wrong to read poems touching on adult and/or erotic matters. Some of my poems do contain adult themes and I would never dream of performing them at an event at which children where present.
However, I am deeply concerned at the growth of the view that there exists a right not to be offended. Let me qualify the foregoing statement somewhat. Of course we all have a right to be offended. Indeed one can not help finding certain things offensive. What we do not have is the right to use our sense of offense (how ever genuine that may be) to censor artistic expression. Most of us are offended by something or other, whether that be swearing in public or the person standing next to us on the tube who has failed to clean their teeth! However we do, as adults have the capacity to either ignore the offending behaviour or to walk away. To argue that certain songs, literature etc should be prohibited and/or restricted simply because I (or you) don’t like it, is deeply iliberal and ends in a society where poets and other producers of art confine themselves to writing about flowers and sweet little lambs frolicking in the countryside. Whilst there are some wonderful poems and other artistic creations touching on these themes, no artist should be compelled (or feel so compelled) either by the state or the force of public opinion (whether majority or minority opinion) to self-censor. To do so leads to an anodine world in which little (if anything) of artistic value flourishes.
I well remember having a conversation with a person of deep faith in which they stated that no one should be allowed to criticise their religion and, in particular their god. I find this perspective deeply disturbing. We do, thankfully live in a liberal society wher you and I have a right to be offended. However we have no right to use that offense (however deeply felt) to call for the censoring of the opinions of others, whether in the field of art, politics or in any other sphere.