How we shirked our duty to offend
An axiom attributed to Leonardo da Vinci is that great artists steal. In that vein, I shamelessly steal from Spiked! editor Brendan O’Neill his phrase, a ‘duty to offend’. When I first heard this expression, I didn’t get it. A duty to offend? Surely not? The right to offend absolutely, but a duty? That’s going too far I thought. Since that time, I’ve seen people surrender territory in the marketplace of ideas. They abandoned the truth for fear of giving offence. It now matters less what is right, but what people feel is right.
It is inevitable that when we discuss issues of great consequence someone will be offended. In recent years we learned that there is no limit to what some will take offence to. Yet, despite this knowledge, we continue to kowtow to the perennially offended. In a shameful display of moral cowardice, we’ve shirked our duty to offend.
History tells us that it’s necessary to offend in service of the truth. Before the advent of “GayTMs” and corporate sponsored “Pride Vehicles” Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was deliberately and explicitly offensive. With its hedonistic displays of semi-naked twinks, dykes on bikes and public displays of sadomasochism it was intended to shock and offend. The whole spectacle screamed, “We’re out of the closet and not going back in! Whether it offends you or not!”
Compare the bravery of those men and women with the cowardice of today. Our legislators have given in to the perennially offended. Australia’s 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act states:
It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if: the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people.
Canada’s parliament has passed motions against Islamophobia and has outlawed the misuse of pronouns. How people feel has surpassed in importance discussions of biological reality and much-needed discussions about the compatibility of the world’s second-largest religion with modern liberal democratic values. If it’s deemed offensive, it’s off the table.
On December 30, 2014, the Scottish Police tweeted, “Please be aware that we will continue to monitor comments on social media & any offensive comments will be investigated.” Since that time arrests and investigations into “online crimes of speech” have increased dramatically. In 2016 it was reported that over 2,500 Londoners had been arrested for sending offensive messages.
More recently Canadian Lauren Southern, a conservative YouTuber was detained for six hours and denied entry into the United Kingdom. She had previously handed out flyers stating, “Allah is a gay god.” The United Kingdom’s Home Office said in relation to the incident that, “Border Force has the power to refuse entry to an individual if it is considered that his or her presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good.” Similar laws have been used to deport Julien Blanc, a United States-based “pickup artist”, from Australia for his allegedly offensive views of women.
Worse than the state’s attempt to suppress free speech is the way in which people have self-censored. Democratic governments wouldn’t be emboldened to police speech if we weren’t already self-censoring. Social media has made it easy for the lazy and the stupid to mob anyone with an opinion they dislike.
On the advice of public relations experts, too many people have given grovelling apologies in response to offended tweeters. Many of these apologises have been given regardless of any objective sense of the truth or legitimacy of the offence taker’s claims. The corporations and public figures giving these apologies have shirked their duty to offend and embolden those who would deny us our free speech.
In Australia, Coopers Brewery released a hostage style apology video after its involvement in a same-sex marriage debate between two MPs during Australia’s same-sex marriage plebiscite became the subject of a boycott by those hoping to silence the No Campaign. This was at the same time many other corporations blatantly lectured their customers and employees in favour of the Yes Campaign. This back down emboldened Yes campaigners in their claim that any argument in favour of a no vote was hate speech.
As a society, we’ve been failing to tell the truth for a long a long time. We’ve evaded the truth for too long. Why? Because the truth often offends. We’ve made giving offence the worst possible crime. We’ve become scared to offend, even made it illegal to offend. We’ve vacated the market of ideas and surrendered it to the perennially offended.