Taking offence: Philip Pullman on blasphemy

My wife Jennie recently told me a anecdote about a stint working as a waitress in Canada, a period in which she made ends meet whilst she studied. In the restaurant, there used to be a box passed around into which the patrons could drop their tip, hidden from the rest of the group. One tip would reappear with wearying familiarity and that tip would be a scrap of paper upon which was written: don’t eat the yellow snow.

No doubt suffering from l’esprit de l’escalier I suggested that my tip would be a perhaps more serious, even pompous one: ‘stop being offended’. I think, like irony and innocence (which are another matter), that being offended has become a real blight on the relationships in our everyday and cultural life and at its worst threatens one of humanity’s greatest achievements, free speech. Or rather, as the writer Philip Pullman reminds us with his pithy, eloquent and beautifully pitched response, you don’t have the right to live without taking offence:

Just as we have the right to publish our thoughts and feelings – and we do, now that we blog, and Tweet and share so keenly – we are equally subject to those thoughts and feelings being criticised, from which offence might arise. We show our strength through our reaction to criticism, where it falls on the right side of a law that embraces free speech.

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