Clifton Mark in Aeon:
In 1717, Voltaire was arrested, some might say, for giving offence. He had published a ‘satirical’ verse that opens by calling the Duc d’Orleans, the then Regent of France, ‘an inhuman tyrant, famous for poison, atheism, and incest’. This pungent personal attack became so popular it was sung on the streets of Paris. In response, the Duc had Voltaire arrested without accusation or trial. The author spent 11 months in the Bastille.
Such stories help to explain why Voltaire turns up so frequently in today’s debates over offensive speech, which are driven by the sense that members of historically marginalised groups have become increasingly willing to take offence to speech that they feel implies their exclusion or inferiority. Many believe that this trend has gone too far. In 2016, the Pew Research Centre in the US found that a majority of Americans believe that ‘too many people are easily offended these days over language’. Angus Reid, a Canadian polling company, found similar results – in their poll, 80 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement: ‘These days, it seems like you can’t say anything without someone feeling offended.’ This sense is not without basis. Public discourse is filled with confrontations over offensive speech. Hardly a day goes by when some public figure is not called out for offensive behaviour, or when another argues that all this offence-taking is a threat to free speech.