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.

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Ched Evans and our Blind Spot for Athletes who Rape

Yesterday, convicted rapist Ched Evans was blocked from moving overseas to play for a Maltese football club by the Ministry of Justice. Today, it was revealed that he is in talks with Oldham Athletic FC, a Division 1 team who appear to be willing to sign him. This is after Sheffield United decided not to sign him again upon his release from prison, under pressure from, among others, Jessica Ennis-Hill. Whilst ultimately successful, she suffered appalling rape threats on Twitter from fans of Evans.

But this, as we know by now, is par for the course when you go after high profile sportspeople who also happen to be rapists. It makes it even less surprising (but still incredibly depressing) that Evans’ victim has been abused so horrifically that she’s been forced to emigrate and to change her name, not once, but five times.

There’s currently a petition on change.org to ask Oldham Athletic FC not to sign Ched Evans, on the basis that unrepentant convicted rapists probably shouldn’t be given jobs where they are glamourised and looked up to as role models by thousands of young boys. It doesn’t seem like a particularly controversial claim. There’s nothing to say that Evans can’t work again – of course he can – but we shouldn’t be giving a convicted rapist the privilege of working in a position which, like it or not, gives him significant influence over the attitudes and lives of a large number of people.

Victim Blaming and Defending Convicted Rapists

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to think that this is the case. In an op-ed in the Sunday Times today, David Walsh gives Evans, putting it mildly, a sympathetic treatment. It’s behind a paywall, so if you’re unable to see it, you can read the full text here.

Frankly, the article is a disgrace. Walsh, who admits his bias at the beginning of the article, refuses to refer to Evans’ victim as anything other than ‘the complainant’ throughout. The majority of the article reads as a lament for the fall of a promising young footballer, highlighting his goal-scoring prowess as though that means that he definitely isn’t a rapist – or, if he is, we should all just forget about that and let the poor man get on with his job.

There’s some victim blaming in there too: his core argument seems to be that the victim had been more drunk in the past than she was that night, and therefore was obviously able to consent. He recites the accounts of Evans’ friend, who was also present, and his girlfriend, who still believes that he would never rape somebody. He even gives the account of the night porter at the hotel where they stayed – he heard them having sex through the door and thought that it didn’t sound like a struggle. Again, the message behind this seems to be ‘look, he definitely didn’t rape her, honest’.

This only serves to perpetuate the myth that rape can only happen in certain ways: that the victim has to struggle, that the perpetrator has to be fully aware that what they’re doing is rape. But that’s just not the case. Sometimes people are just too drunk to give meaningful consent, and a fairly good indicator of this is that they’re unable to remember it at all the next day. That was true of Evans’ victim. She was, as the judge said, ‘extremely intoxicated’ and ‘in no condition to have sexual intercourse’. Just because she’d been more drunk on other occasions, or she was physically capable of having sex, it doesn’t mean that she was in a state to be able to give consent. Consent is meaningless unless it is informed, and given by someone with the capacity to give it.

Rape Culture and the Athletic Blind Spot

This article, which essentially reads as a defence of Evans, a man who has been convicted and had that conviction upheld on appeal, is a prime example of rape culture. Rape is one of the only crimes where, even after someone has been convicted, people will continue to defend their innocence and refuse to acknowledge that they actually did it. Nobody would write an op-ed in The Sunday Times defending the honour of a convicted paedophile. But in this case, as in so many other rape cases, it is the perpetrator who is portrayed as the victim, a young star whose light has been blotted out by a bad mistake they made (or may not have made). We see it time and again, with one of the most heinous recent examples being the Steubenville case.

Moreover, it demonstrates that our priorities are all wrong when it comes to athletes who commit crimes. As we saw with Oscar Pistorious, if a promising athlete is accused of a crime, then the media will invariably paint them as the victim, with their career ‘ruined’, as though their sporting skill nullifies their capacity to do wrong, or is too important to be put in jeopardy by little things like criminal acts. But the fact is that there is no correlation between athletic prowess and moral goodness. Lots of incredibly good sportspeople have been, and are, terrible people. We’re generally quite good at recognising this is the case if they’re actually convicted – see the lack of sympathy for Oscar Pistorious once he was found guilty – but we have a blindspot for convicted rapists who are talented sportspeople. There are a large number of people in society who think that, because of their talents, they cannot do any wrong – or at least that they should be forgiven and allowed to return to their previous position.

That shouldn’t be the case. Rape is a heinous crime, and Ched Evans shows no signs of remorse. It’s precisely because so many people still don’t seem to see what’s so wrong with having sex with someone who is unable to consent that we shouldn’t allow him to be given a lucrative contract in a job where he is seen as a role model, someone to aspire to be. We can’t risk more people thinking that what he did is in any way acceptable. We can’t let anyone else think that rape has any place in society. He’s done his time, but we shouldn’t forget what else he’s done.