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In defence of offense

Is this offensive? Sometimes, we grate each other’s sensibilities for a reason

Katie Toth, Opinions Editor


Many of us are told, day in and day out, that offending people is bad. At the same time, many people who describe themselves as hurt or offended—by hate speech, rape culture, or homophobia—are told to quiet their identity politics and lighten up.

Conservatives and libertarians often take this route when people try to condemn or criminalize hate speech. “It’s not your right not to be offended,” they say.

But this week, Dalhousie’s gang of awkward, off-the-rack suit-dents got a taste of that medicine when they saw an audacious performance art piece representing NS politicians facing the guillotine and then being thrown into the air.

The piece featured signs saying “The cuts we’d like to see” and “We agree! Times are tough. Cuts need to be made.”

The “piece of mocking political satire,” as Dave Bush described it, was intended to provoke discourse about our broken political system. At the Day of Action rally, CFS-NS chairperson Elise Graham encapsulated the problem: “We’ve learned that no party has our backs.” No matter who you vote for, every political party has made it a priority to offload the deficits caused by capitalism onto the backs of the poor, and cut social programs that support marginalized communities.

The piece, says Bush, was “political theatre, and that’s about that. It’s not going to start a revolution, but it is opening up a space to talk about bigger issues.”

Bush hopes his art “challenges you to think beyond simply voting for one party or the other that gives you the same choice. Trying to open up different possibilities when you think about politics.”

Of course, a few people were ready to voice their dissent, including Macleans’ favourite student journalist, Robyn Urback. She described the event as a “gross barbarity.” I’m not really sure how she managed to get to Halifax for the protest, but can only imagine that with such strong words, she must have been there to bear witness to this mortal offense. Right?

I didn’t find the project to be offensive. Rather, I thought it was hilarious.  Yet I consider myself a pacifist in all forms, and I would never doubt the power of human language to cause harm or hate. So I started to ask myself—am I just a big, smarmy, leftist hypocrite? When is offense or disrespect unacceptable, and when is it legitimate?

The first conclusion I came to fits right into the libertarian model. ‘Offense’ is a nebulous idea. It isn’t anyone’s right to not be offended. You can’t even prove that offense exists.

Hate speech, homophobia, and rapey remarks aren’t bad because they’re “offensive.” Drawing pictures of the Mohammed in order to get a rise out of Muslim community members isn’t bad because it’s “offensive.” We call these ideas hateful and push for them to be treated as illegal not because they might hurt some feelings, but because they harbour within them the real capacity to perpetuate structures of harm.

The faux-assassination of three nameless, faceless dummies representing Nova Scotia political parties, by a few hungry-looking art-degree alumni—on a day when those politicians weren’t even inside the House, for heaven’s sake—is not perpetuating that harm.*

MLAs, as a unit, don’t have a history of being systematically oppressed by the state. Most of them don’t have a history of being told that their bodies are someone else’s entitlement. I’ve never heard of an “MLA bar” getting shut down by the police with charges of indecent exposure (maybe this is the root of our collective problems?) .MLAs aren’t told to “go home” or deported or made to go through extra security checks because they’ve shared their belief in the power of the Province’s legislative structure.

When I was at the rally, I wasn’t intimidated by the fake guillotine covered in what was probably red corn syrup. The only people I saw who had real power to enact violence were the police—a state apparatus. When we—peacefully, hilariously, aggressively—speak out against injustice caused by decision makers and people who are traditionally both privileged and protected by that state, we’re not putting people at risk.

So I’d like to see those who were so put-off at the Day of Action give a little love to the protesters whose anger heated up a cold day. Let’s focus our righteous offense at the small acts of violence people perpetuate towards already-marginalized people every day.


*This article originally refered to there being two nameless, faceless dummies. Nova Scotia, in fact, has three major political parties, and three nameless, faceless dummies represented them under the knife.


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