MANY things offend me in life. Some things are trivial and funny, other things are serious and personal. I won’t list the funny ones here at the risk of lowering the tone.

I’m sure it offends all of us to be insulted or mocked, patronised or demeaned. If you’re immune to that, you’re a better person than I am.

Politics operates with the currency of causing offence. It is forever trying to tear down and secure victories at other’s expense. Journalists want to find the weakness in every politician and then pursue them mercilessly. Politicians want to trip up and embarrass their opponents.

The electorate is understandably so scunnered with everything that they often assume the worst about a politician or a party and then laugh when it happens.

It only takes a couple of moments on Twitter to find a few choice examples of offensive material levelled at me. From comments about my appearance to accusations of ineptitude and incompetence, it makes for an easy thesaurus if you need a synonym for “stupid”.

Most of it is bizarre, but that is the point. It’s never about the truth or informing the debate: it’s all about causing maximum offence.

The comment about sticks and stones isn’t strictly true – we all have a sensitive side. But after seven years in frontline politics, I’ve got a thick enough skin to know that people who are tough on Twitter are whimpering cowards in real life. They are unlikely to do anything.

In fact, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting some of my biggest Twitter detractors in the flesh. Most become pleasant and civil the moment they have to look you in the eye. That is especially true if you ask them, with a warm smile and a firm handshake, for evidence of the last accusation they made on Twitter.

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But not everybody is so innocent. Some have been so bold as to make threats that feel a lot more real. Their words are born of a desire to destroy and wipe you off the face of the earth. They don’t want to cause offence, they want to eliminate.

That’s when empty threats and offensive comments stray into the territory of police and legal action. I’m sure all politicians have been through that process at some point or another, seeking resolution in the law of the land.

The law is there to protect everybody from physical threats and violence, irrespective of who they are. What it doesn’t do, nor should it, is protect you from experiencing offence.

The Fringe has been massively politicised this year. Not just because you can’t move an inch without seeing an advert for a political interview (guilty). But because culture wars have replaced old-fashioned comedy. In a political interview this week, I suggested that times have become harder for comedians, who draw deep from the well of offence.

That sparked a massive Twitter showdown as people accused me of the most heinous crimes and causing horrendous offence. Of course, it goes without saying that my full comments are never read, only the headlines. But that aside, it poses a fascinating question about the nature of offence and whether and how it should be punished.

Offence is inherently subjective and unobjective. It is immensely personal. One person’s joke is another person’s outrage. I’ve heard plenty of comedy in my lifetime which disgusts and offends me. People love a religious joke. I admit: some of those jokes make me feel very uncomfortable. Others offend me. But self-evidently others find it hilarious enough to sell-out comedians’ shows.

And the thing is: I get that it’s a joke. I know it’s a joke because it is made by a comedian whose actual job it is to make people laugh. Sure, the comedian might even believe the truth of their joke, but I know that they aren’t trying to destroy, kill and threaten people of faith with violence.

Sometimes they make these comments on stage, other times they make them on social media or in conversation. It doesn’t lessen the offence I may or may not feel. It does mean, however, that it shouldn’t be prosecuted as a crime, either by the judiciary or the community, unless it breaks the law.

Beyond that, what if the offensive commentary isn’t intended as comedy? Well, take journalists. They ask difficult questions and print critical news reports. Sometimes I dislike how I am portrayed, other times I’m content. But I don’t believe that any journalist should be prosecuted on account of whether I feel offended or not.

I know their job is to speak truth to power and hold decision-makers accountable – uncomfortably accountable. They have a duty to inform the public, and to do so they need to sell papers with relevant articles. I recall during the pandemic agreeing to support the newspaper industry (and journalists’ jobs) with substantial additional funding – even as they printed stories that criticised me. Essentially, I was protecting the very source of my offence.

Important caveat: this is not a legal treatise, I’ll leave that to the lawyers. It is a political view. There is much which offends – but if we determine right and wrong by the extent of our offended feelings then it truly is each to their own and nobody is safe. It is possible to feel offended, and protect somebody else’s right to be offensive (so long as they don’t break the law).

The law should establish a universal standard of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in our society. That must be accessible to everybody, irrespective of who they are or what power they hold. In other countries, governed by corrupt dictatorships, it is the feelings of the man in charge which determine that standard. Not so in our country.

Here, the law transcends personal feelings and sensitivities. The law is not relative in that sense; the statute books are black and white. The rules don’t ebb and flow on the basis of how a powerful person or a powerful group feels.

“Hurt my feelings and you’re done for” hasn’t made it on to the statute books in such a blunt way – yet. Hopefully it never will. Where the law deems an action to be wrong, the perpetrator will be charged and convicted if there is sufficient evidence in the appropriate manner.

Community justice and mob rule is becoming ever more worrying. When the mob is the jury, judge and executioner, nobody is safe. On Twitter, the new judiciary hunt in packs, scouting for weak souls to destroy. One blows the self-righteous whistle at having found a new carcass to feast on and everybody descends. They tear into a person or an issue, scrapping over every shred. Off Twitter, it isn’t much better.

Last week it was comedians. Next week it might be academics. The week after it will probably be journalists. Meanwhile, the law does its thing, evaluating the evidence and establishing whether a crime has been committed.

Mob rule won’t lead us anywhere we want to go as a society.