Alex Massie

There’s No Right Not to be Offended

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There's nothing wrong with being offended by an argument but everything wrong with asserting a "right" not to be so offended. When this notional right is combined with the suggestion that the offending writer be punished or blackballed or, as seems to be possible these days, reported to the police we find ourselves in a place in which freedom of speech is honoured as an abstract, even hypothetical, concept but severely circumscribed in reality.

That's one consequence of the modern mania for asserting victimhood. If political correctness - surely as redundant a term these days as multiculturalism - means anything it asks that we honour the spirit of the good book's invocation to do unto others as we would have done unto us. It does not mean protecting some groups from criticism or shielding them from hurly-burly of the public square. Too often, however, it's viewed as a way of combatting "privilege" by awarding greater privileges to one group based on their minority or supposed underdog status. (The identity* of these groups can change, depending upon circumstance or persuasion or an argument's parameters.)

Which brings me to Isaac Chotiner's review of That's Offensive!, a new pamphlet by Stefan Collini:

Criticism is not Western or Eastern or Christian or Jewish, and those facing criticism—and those societies and cultures facing criticism—should respond in a spirit of openness about truth. To withhold criticism from certain communities or religions is, in Collini’s word, a form of condescension towards them. It denies these groups the ability to engage in constructive dialogue, and to fortify their own values. In the final analysis, everyone loses.

Collini does not adequately address the issue of when people should take offense, because his focus is on the inequitable way in which offense is deemed valid. Moreover, his vision of the public square, where ideas find free flow among honest debaters, may strike some as too optimistic. There is no such public square yet in existence. (He acknowledges this criticism). But he ends very strongly: “When engaged in public argument … do not be so afraid of giving offence that you allow bad arguments to pass as though they were good ones, and do not allow your proper concern for the vulnerable to exempt their beliefs and actions from that kind of rational scrutiny to which you realize, in principle, your own beliefs must also be subjected.”

Quite so. Furthermore, the enthusiasm with which some people latch onto epithets or labels they consider "offensive" is, in the end, usually a means of avoiding argument on the merits of any given case.

Looking back, perhaps the publication of The Satanic Verses was a telling moment. There were rather too many so-called liberals arguing that, sure, in a technical sense Rushdie had every "right" to publish his novel but he ought not to have been surprised by the storm of protest with which it was received in some quarters. Furthermore it was necessary to "understand" those protests even though, in this instance, the act of "understanding" was tantamount to an endorsement of them. That this led to murder, amidst many other outrages, was somehow the fault of Rushdie and his publishers.

Nonsense of course but it set a precedent nonetheless. There's now a more-than-cottage-sized industry of people looking to be offended at any and every available opportunity, scouring the internet for things they find disgraceful and launching Twitter campaigns to have writers censured or fired or otherwise suppressed. It's wearisome and shrill and dangerous and one wonders why these people have no better things to do with their days.

Take offence by all means but do not suppose that your hurt feelings permit you a privileged position or grant some curious right to freedom from offense. Calling the police because you don't like an article someone has published is pathetic. Rights become meaningless if they're not applied equally, even to those whose arguments we may find distasteful and for whom we have little time.

Liberalism is a pretty precious thing and sometimes it needs to be defended against those who claim to be on its side just as readily as its virtues must be asserted in opposition to those who'd seek to close the open society.

*Particularly true of the Israel-Palestine conflict in which both sides tend to assert their status as the primary victims.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyfreedom of speech