Flat White

The author is (not) dead

30 July 2022

11:00 AM

30 July 2022

11:00 AM

As long as individuals interact with one another, someone is going to wind up offended from time to time. The key is in being able to move past it.

This sounds like a lesson for a preschool class – just ignore those meanies and don’t be a baby! – but it’s a lesson that grown-ups can brush up on as well, especially those who fancy themselves champions of free speech.

It’s also a lesson I recently re-learned.

I’m someone who advocates for free speech and regularly cites the quote, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ You will hear me say it at parties. Airports. Dinners. Nowhere is sacred.

Knowing the value of candid discussion, of empathy, and of trying to see the best in people, it caught me off guard when I found myself offended by a comment made by a fellow advocate of freedom. It felt pointed. Hostile. I got salty. We talked about it later and I discovered that the whole thing was a misunderstanding.

Offence normally results from one of three situations:

  1. Intentional insult
  2. Misaligned values or beliefs
  3. Misunderstanding.


Under ideal circumstances, the joke would have been clear, but a combination of factors pushed my friend’s comment from the obvious joke zone, past the confusing comment zone, and into the zone of intentional insult.

It takes a perfect storm for a comment to be swept so far off course.

The personal context that turned the joke into an attack could not have been fathomed by my friend. If he had set out to offend me, there would have been no better remark for the job. His intention as the author of the remark made the difference between insult and innocent joke.

The ‘death of the author’ is a sentiment explored by French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. Don’t judge the book on what the author buried in the text but on what you dig up. His idea revolutionised discussion around how meaning could be derived from media and elevated the experience of perceiving artwork.

But when one human being is trying to convey an idea to another, clarity is the goal and navigating language can be a treacherous undertaking.

Freedom of expression and speech are vital to humankind’s learning, improving, and progressing peacefully. In fact, despite the popularity of Cancel Culture at the moment, I believe no rational human would deny the utility of free speech. Instead, those in favour of ‘cancelling’ differing perspectives justify their position by believing theirs is an exception to the rule. Rather, that freedom of speech is good – except for under certain offensive circumstances.

Before we talked it out, my friend, though deeply apologetic for offending me, didn’t know why it had struck a nerve and figured it would be best to avoid making edgy jokes with me in future.

Protecting freedom of speech involves more than simply decrying ‘Cancel Culture’. It means giving people the benefit of the doubt. Figuring out what they really mean.

Allowing friends to make jokes that fall flat.

Ebony Graveur is the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance Communications Director

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