You do not have the right to ‘offend’

On the 5th March, I spoke in a debate at the Oxford Union, against the motion “This House Believes that Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend. We lost. Catastrophically. A full, much funnier, write up of the event is on its way, but in the meantime, here’s the rough text of the speech I gave.

I have two jokes for you. The first comes from a piece by Frankie Boyle, entitled ‘Offence and Free Speech’. It goes like this:

The thing about that paedophile ring at Westminster is that they weren’t even the worst MPs. There were people in Parliament who were to the right of MPs that STRANGLED KIDS. And they actually did more harm than paedophiles. I mean, the nonces tried to do harm in their own little way, but Thatcher fucked ALL the kids.

The second comes from a lovely website called Sickipedia, and it goes like this:

What do you say to a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice.

Both of these jokes are offensive in the sense that they can shock, appall and cause personal upset. On the level of rights and freedoms, only one of these jokes matters.

What I’m hoping to convince you of over the next few minutes is that framing this debate in terms of ‘offence’ is an error. It is an error because it obscures the difference between the personal upset which might be caused to a person in a position of privilege by a joke, or a comment, or an insult, and the contribution to oppression and prejudice and structural inequalities which is made by comments aimed at people from groups which are marginalised in society.

First, I want to address some of the points made by Brendan O’Neill in his speech. I want to talk about the idea that any restriction on speech in the name of preventing harm, where that speech is not actively inciting violence, is somehow paternalistic or infantilising. Brendan in particular has a shtick about this. ‘Students of Britain,’ he says, ‘rise up against your censorious leaders! You’re being patronised beyond belief. You’re being infantilised. So buy the Sun, play Robin Thicke on college radio, invite the EDL to speak, talk about abortion, make sexist jokes, indulge in banter, hold debates on transgenderism, and do anything else you can to kick against the pricks who think you are babies who must be kept away from sexy or shocking or silly words.’

Two responses to this: One, no, I’m not the only one saying these things, it’s just that I’m the one who gets invited to speak about them at the Oxford Union and I wonder why that is. It’s almost as if entrenched structural privilege is a thing. Most of the people saying these things are from marginalised groups, and the free speech absolutists are, by and large, privileged white men.

Two, why is having a thick skin such an important trait to you? what is so important about being able to take insult after insult that you fetishise emotional fortitude so? why can’t you embrace the reality that some people in society are weak, they are vulnerable, they are hurt in ways that go beyond the temporary emotional by things that you say?

Let’s talk about how we have come to be in a situation where ‘offence’ is the operative word in situations where speech is discussed. How have we got to the point where any and all protests against the harmful effects of a particular speech act can be dismissed with the wave of a hand and an apocryphal Voltaire quote? How has it come to pass that we have ceded the authority to obviate any need for arbitration of speech and expression, either by ourselves or by others, to smug Stephen Fry GIFs?

A tentative answer – and those of you playing student leftie bingo, please keep any noise to a minimum – comes from neo-liberal individualism. When we’ve been told for so long that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families, we come to believe that not only is there no need for social cohesion greater than that required to facilitate the functioning of business, but also that there is no such thing as identity politics – or that, if there is, it is something pernicious, something which undermines ‘rational discourse’, something JS Mill certainly wouldn’t approve of. We’ve been led to believe that the only kind of harm that matters is individual harm, that the only offence which has any importance is individual offence, that there is no need for a politics which encompasses the very real prejudices, conscious and unconscious, historic and present, which give rise to structural oppressions in our society.

This, I put to you, is a fundamental mistake. [Only if Brendan et al say this: last time I spoke to Brendan, he quoted Martin Luther King, telling me that he wanted to live in a world in which people were judged by their character, and not by the colour of their skin]. I, too, would like to live in that world. But it is not the world we live in. You have to be intentionally looking in the wrong direction not to see the very real, everyday acts, both small and large, minor and viscerally violent, which are perpetrated against people from marginalised groups, and which perpetuate their marginalisation.

Only by recognising that oppression and harm happens on a structural level, and it is contributed to by every offensive joke, no matter if it is ‘ironic’; by every throwaway remark about rape, or domestic violence, or mental illness; by every racist cartoon and every dog-whistle xenophobic immigration panic Daily Mail article and every Unilad facebook post; only when we recognise that, can we begin to understand why ‘offence’ is not the right way to frame this debate. What to me is personally upsetting – and I’ve been called an awful lot of things in recent months – is to others actively oppressive.

Instead of focussing on ‘offence’, we should be focussing on material harm, whether that be physical or psychological – and there really isn’t that much of a distinction between them. This has all been said before, in much more eloquent terms, by Katherine Cross of Feministing. She says, ‘Being made to fear for your life is not the same as feeling hurt by speech. Losing your job as a result of stereotypes or harassment contained in speech is not the same as feeling personally offended by that speech. Being shot by the police because of ideas about your skin color transmitted through discourse is not the same as merely being offended by it. Being outed against your will is not the same as having your feelings hurt by it. It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.’

These are the kinds of material harm with which we should concern ourselves. Speaking out against these acts, which happen every single day, across the world, is a radical expression of free speech. Some people will tell you that the most important thing we can do is to listen to views we consider vile and toxic, as though inciting racial hatred or transphobia or misogyny is some kind of victory for Enlightenment values.

I think J.S. Mill would be sick to his stomach if he were alive to see the kinds of people who have appropriated his ideas today, and the ends to which they have put them. Never mind the fact that the ideal Millian arena in which good ideas will always beat the bad ideas just doesn’t exist. Never mind the rhetorical tricks and flourishes and seductive prose that awful people use to convince ordinary people to join them in hatred.

Instead of celebrating the most down-punching, prejudiced, bigoted acts of speech that can be summoned up in the name of ‘free inquiry’, we should be celebrating the up-punchers, the radicals who offend those in power, the non-conformists who refuse to be cowed by bullies who wield ‘the Enlightenment’ and ‘robust public debate’ as sticks to beat them with.

Yes, we should have freedom of speech. Yes, we should have debate, and argument, and vigorous disagreement. But we have to recognise that not all views are created equal, that you do not have a positive, protected right to hurt people, and ‘offence’ does not begin to cover the damage which our words can cause.


6 thoughts on “You do not have the right to ‘offend’

  1. You talk about ‘the non-conformists who refuse to be cowed by bullies who wield ‘the Enlightenment’’. Glad you support them.

    But maybe non-conformists – with original, exciting and even dangerous ideas – are the ones with ‘offensive’ ideas that we need to hear.

    The offensive non-conformists who need the freedom to ‘offend’ are the gay rights activists of the 1980s, non-Muslim thinkers in countries with blasphemy laws, the abortion rights activists of the 1940s and 1950s who couldn’t get a platform at all because their views were considered ‘offensive’.

    If we had refused to accept in principle the ‘freedom to offend’, we would be stuck in the middle ages. New ideas and good ideas are often offensive. But trying to stop all offensive ideas is setting up a principle that gets in the way of these good ideas.

    Freedom of speech includes the right to offend because the offensive stuff is not in and of itself always bad.

    • You’re right, just missed the point: he’s denying an absolute right to offend, rather than supporting an absolute prohibition to do so. So that the question is if every form of offense is right, rather than if form of offense is wrong.

      • The problem then is: who decides what form of offence is right and which is wrong? The answer will inevitably be: those in power, one way or another. Who, once given this power, will endeavour to promote views which they share and stifle views with which they disagree. This is the big problem with restricting free speech because “not all ideas are created equal”: that it only works in your favour only if, and for as long as, you are in power or aligned with power. Once power is against you, for whatever reason, that’s it for you and your ideas.

        And this is not some nutty right-winger’s apocalyptic scenario: for supporters of women’s rights, gay rights, trans right, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, etc., it has been precisely like that for most of history. In much of the world it has always been like that. Like it or not, what enabled supporters of each of these rights in the so-called West to argue their point and sway public opinion more and more in their favour was first and foremost a legal framework that allowed all ideas to be aired freely and equally, without being impacted by the prevailing – indeed almost unanimous – standards and judgements of the day. Whatever freedom we members of marginalised minorities now have we owe precisely to a notion that “all ideas are created equal”, or that at least the authorities should treat them as though they were.

        The idea that now everything has changed and the powers-that-be are so irreversibly enlightened that they cannot possibly be wrong again is absolutely risible. And it is on this idea, whether admittedly or not, that arguments against generalised freedom of speech are predicated. Unless you are in power and are certain that you can hold on to it for ever, these very arguments will turn against you in no time. Needless to say that members of marginalised minorities, ipso facto, will be hit first and hardest.

    • Do you ever wonder how many people, I mean the thin skinned sensitive people, are missing from debates? Just wondering if you think there is any point in hearing the voices of people who just plain don’t want to suffer abuse. I do happen to believe that freedom of expression should include the freedom to offend, but don’t act like you aren’t engaging in your own form of oppression and censorship.

  2. First I want to say that i agree with you that structural oppression hurts a lot of people and that actions that are believed to support structural oppression should have some social consequence. I also agree that it’s crucial to frame the debate in terms of harm and not what offends people (because anything can be offensive to someone).

    However, how do we know that a certain expression is contributing to structural oppression that hurts people? I can think of two answers. One way is to try and figure this out thought discussion and the pursuit of truth. This doesn’t seem to be your answer since you plainly oppose people expressing views you disagree with (or that you believe will hurt people). The other alternative (that you seem to imply) is to do what high status people in the social justice circles tell us to do. This is authoritarianism that any sane person will oppose.

    I we had a magic wand that would tell us whether any action has a positive or negative impact on the world there wouldn’t be any need for freedom of speech, or any freedom what so ever. But we don’t have that wand. Freedom of speech exists because you are probably wrong about a lot of the things you believe in, and so am I*. Because of this constant uncertainty as to whether what you believe in is actually true, the best policy is to allow everyone to argue for their beliefs freely so that the ones closest to the truth will win out in the end.

    * I highly recommend reading this for a historical respective:

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