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.

Justin Campbell
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2 Comments on "How we shirked our duty to offend"

  1. Richard Davies | 30/03/2018 at 10:47 am |

    I believe that a “duty to offend” must be understood in context, for the idea to have currency.
    Courtesy, politeness, etiquette, social mores, common respect for others and behavioural customs normally restrain us from saying offensive things inappropriately. These are all restraints which emanate from the grass roots of society itself, and can be described as ‘bottom up’ restraints which promote and smooth out relationships among our network of friends, associates, work mates and the broader community. Society would not function smoothly if we were always aggressive and offensive to everyone else. And society has ways of dealing with people who overstep the boundaries of impoliteness, or being unpleasant by disassociation with people like that. It does not need any law to for courtesies to be enforced, or for most of us to choose not to offend most of the time.
    Our society has developed over the history of humankind, and in many ways it functions very well. We have to recognise those parts which work, and which continue to work in new environments.
    But there are failures too, and society develops beyond some traditional practices which become obsolete. Or the world changes, and we must adapt to it, to survive. Human society must keep developing, and often obstacles have to be overcome. People who never want to change can be a problem.
    To expand anyone’s mind in a new direction, you first have to introduce some discomfort to them and turbulence / dissonance to disturb them with the ideas that currently sit as stereotypes in their mind. Without a positive reason to shift a perspective, inertia and complacency rule, and nothing changes. Introducing a disturbance to a thinking pattern and making people uncomfortable with an idea or thought pattern is also called offending them, especially if that idea is an important part of their internal belief system. Because inertia is such a powerful force, internal feelings protect those beliefs fiercely.
    Offending as a tool of rebooting thought patterns is most effective when used very selectively and sparingly. But there are times and places when offending people is the only way of creating sufficient dissonance to make it possible that change can occur. Hence I believe it was entirely necessary to have the same sex marriage debate, because some would not change without that discussion.
    Within my generation, I can remember when women had to resign when they married. With government jobs that was the law, and it was common practice in the 1950’s. I can remember when living with someone without first marrying them was “sinful”, and of course, then, the other person had to be of the alternative gender (with only a binary option) to you. Of course, all that has already changed in my lifetime, but those changes brought with them a whole heap of pain and “being offended” to many along the pathways of change. What change does our society need next decade or next century? Because I am sure changes are still needed. Humans have to keep adapting. So it will be necessary to offend some people again, and again.
    The last thing we need is ‘top down’ heavy handed laws being imposed banning offending language or ideas, because opposing schools of thought can only reconcile with each other when a confrontation of ideas occurs, with discussion to a conclusion. However, laws tend to freeze everything as at the date when the law was written.
    Conclusion – laws are a heavy handed and unnecessary way of reducing hurt feelings from being “offended”. Other norms and customs work well enough to reduce the incidence of being offended, and encourage positive behaviours well enough, making laws completely unnecessary. Brendon O’Neill is perfectly correct in observing that there is a ‘duty to offend’ in situations where change is imperative, and it is essential in the development of human society that no impediment is introduced by way of any law to retard new ideas being formulated and discussed. Being offensive (to some) is an essential tool of change and human development. Hence, when change is essential, that very imperative for change brings with it a duty to offend.

  2. Andrew Russell | 30/03/2018 at 5:41 pm |

    A very good article.

    As I see it, offense and shock are basically necessary. Libertarians have played respectability politics for decades and it hasn’t gotten libertarians inside the Overton Window despite the immense amount of great scholarship we’ve produced.

    The left used shock tactics in every culture war. Gay acceptance has always had shock tactics involved, and even though there was a change towards a certain level of respectability politics in the early 90s (due to the works of Andrew Sullivan and Bruce Bawer, who I think were the first advocates of same sex marriage), the aesthetic shock tactics and transgression never vanished. As an atheist I know that atheists and secularists used plenty of shock tactics… merely stating one is an atheist can cause a lot of shock still… but Christopher Hitchens’ work was so influential and awesome in part because he was savagely witty and snarky in his critiques.

    Not to mention that the person who has radicalized more libertarians than any other was Ayn Rand. She hardly respected mainstream sensibilities.

    I certainly don’t think we should avoid respectable or scholarly efforts. But we need some “shock troops” as supplementary personnel.

    If shock can “stretch” the Overton Window a little, and repeated shock works like exercise (i.e. the Overton Window naturally contracts in the absense of shock treatment), it follows that those outside of the Overton Window and those on the edges of it have an interest in transgressive discourse.

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