LM Archives
  1:42 am GMT
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment LM Search Archives Subject index Links Overview FAQ Toolbar

Mick Hume

What about the right to be offensive?

The sacking of Glenn Hoddle might prove to have been a good thing for English football. But, as former Labour MP and campaigner for the deaf Lord Ashley said, it was definitely 'a sad day for British tolerance and freedom of speech'.

Of course Hoddle was talking twaddle when he told the Times that he believed disabilities were caused by 'karma working from another lifetime'. But people should not be censored or dismissed from their jobs because of their beliefs, no matter how mad or bad those might seem.

No doubt Hoddle's remarks caused a lot of genuine offence among disabled people and others. But that's life, and it's tough. In the real world nobody has the right not to be offended. What we should insist upon, however, is the right to be offensive.

Throughout history, any idea worth its salt has been guaranteed to cause widespread offence. In the seventeenth century, Galileo was convicted of heresy for his part in the offensive discovery that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. And it is hard to think of anything causing greater offence than Darwin's theory of evolution did to Victorian creationists.

Everything from universal suffrage to organ transplants, from contraception to legalised divorce, was once considered an offence to standards of public decency. Each time, the pain caused to some people proved well worth it for the gains offered to humanity as a whole.

The right to be offensive is always a prerequisite for moving public debate forwards. Unfortunately, standing up for that right means that we will have to allow freedom of expression for those reactionary and backward- looking ideas that offend us, too. That means refusing to censor insults to disabled people and even, as Ann Bradley argues in this issue, defending free speech for the 'vile scum' who posted the names and addresses of abortion doctors on their 'Nuremberg Files' internet site.

There is a lot at stake in demanding the right to be offensive today. In Tony Blair's Britain free speech is being gradually restricted; not by jackbooted bans, but by an intolerant atmosphere in which any opinion which strays beyond the official line risks being drowned out by cries of 'You can't say that' from on high. So it was that, after the publication of Hoddle's 55 semi-coherent words about karma and disability, no fewer than four government ministers (Margaret Hodge - disability, Chris Smith - culture, Tony Banks - sport, and Tony Blair - everything) and four national newspapers (Times, Express, Sun and Independent) lined up to demand that the football coach be sacked, drawn and quartered. The broader the New Labour consensus grows, it seems, the narrower society's mindset becomes.

Hoddle's fate was sealed the moment that Mr Blair himself sat on Richard and Judy's sofa and declared that, if they had been correctly reported, then Hoddle's words were 'very offensive'. That was a death sentence. There is no greater crime today than offending a minority, like disabled people, which is on the government's list of protected groups. (If Hoddle had suggested instead that he believed karma would reap a terrible revenge on a minority like racist football fans in a future life, his 'wacky' beliefs might well have earned him a seat in the new House of Lords.)

Far more importance is attached to stamping out 'offensive' speech today than ever was in the past. Why? Because there has been a change in society's assumptions, not just about words, but more significantly about people.

It is now widely assumed that people are too weak and vulnerable to get through the rigours of life without being protected from hurtful words or images. This development reflects the general lowering of expectations which LM contributors have discussed in relation to all kinds of contemporary issues. At least the disgraced Glenn Hoddle only believes that some bad individuals risk being relegated in the next life, and reincarnated as animals or insects. By contrast, the view of most respectable opinion makers these days seems to be that the entire human race has slipped down the food chain.

In today's more modest view of the human condition, what matters most in judging people is how they claim that they feel inside, rather than what they actually do in the outside world. Like children, we are to define ourselves by our emotions, instead of our ideas or actions. And the one feeling which now appears to count above all others is that of being offended, or suffering damage to one's self-esteem.

Some of these trends are, as ever, more advanced in the USA, where major injury compensation cases have been won by self-styled victims who claim that other people's words caused them to suffer 'psychic pain' and 'emotional damage'. Princess Diana's view that emotional trauma can be even worse than physical pain is becoming widely accepted. A new language has been coined to describe this irrational conflation of speech and violence, allowing people who have been offended by what somebody said to claim that they are actually the victims of 'words that wound', 'assaultative speech', or even 'spirit murder'.

The elevation of feelings means that the subjective offence you claim to have suffered need have little to do with the objective actions of the offender. If you feel that their words or behaviour are offensive, that is enough to end the argument, regardless of what they intended. After all, nobody can reasonably argue that you are not really offended, just as nobody can get inside your heart and check if you are pretending to be upset.

The first rule is that you do not offend somebody's self-esteem; the victim must always be believed. It is this notion that feelings are sacrosanct which makes the cry of 'offensive' an unanswerable case for censorship today, regardless of the facts of the matter. So it was that a white Washington official was recently forced out of his job, after two black aides took offence at his use of the word 'niggardly' to describe a budget. The fact that the fourteenth-century word has no relation to 'nigger', and that there was no intention to offend, was irrelevant. (The official was later reinstated; but then he did turn out to be a gay professional, another minority on the Washington establishment's protected list.)

The fashion for punishing anything that can be branded 'offensive' tends to run into opposition only when, as in the Washington case, it goes 'too far'. Even then, the critics are usually only quibbling, and are keen to make clear that they really do empathise with the feelings of those who claim to be the victims of emotional abuse. But it is not possible to win the argument against the new type of censorship in this way. After all, if you accept the censors' premise about offensive speech and feelings, then there can be no answer to the victim's cri de coeur: 'But you just don't understand the trauma that I am suffering inside.'

The only way to deal with this creeping climate of censorship is to confront it and insist upon the right to be offensive.

So you say that words can hurt? There is nothing to be done about that. Pain, suffering and offence are as much a part of living among people as are love and friendship. And if we hope to live in a truly open and civilised society (as opposed to one that merely has a strict etiquette), it is much more important to be free to say what you think than to have to worry about hurting somebody's feelings.

Democratic discussion and free debate will surely, by their nature, always cause pain to one side or another. That is no reason to restrict our freedom. Nor should it ever be the business of supposedly democratic politicians and free newspapers to seek to prohibit the expression of other views which they find offensive, as too many did during the Hoddle saga. When the prime minister's spokesman can tell broadcasters to stop contradicting his boss on air, and Blair complains that even Richard and Judy put him under unfair pressure, it is time to start stirring things up.

Don't get the idea, however, that standing up for the right to be offensive means giving twaddle-talkers like Hoddle a free ride. At LM we insist on our right in open debate to offend the feelings and sensibilities of all who peddle religious superstition, irrational theories and any other anti-human rubbish.

We should be free to hammer the views of Hoddle the new-age sage, his faith healer and the millions of Hindus and others who believe in karma and reincarnation, just as we demand the liberty to ridicule the Catholic notion that the local priest's wafers and wine really are the body and the blood of a 2000-year old Jew, along with the official Anglican creed that the Windsors, of all people, were chosen and placed on the throne by God's own hand.

Perhaps even more importantly, we need the freedom to offend against those secular ideas which are granted near-religious status today - like the insidious therapy culture that is taken apart in this month's LM, or the politics of environmentalism that will be put to the question in our next issue. Many of those who subscribe to these beliefs tend to be at least as self-righteous as the old-time religionists - and at least as quick to take offence and demand an end to our blaspheming. All the more reason, then, to cross-examine their claims without worrying too much about treading on over-sensitive toes.

Above all, there is a need now to challenge the dumbed-down assumptions about human nature which lie behind the new climate of censorship. People should expect to be treated as responsible adults, who can cope with life without counsellors, censors or churchy prime ministers rushing to protect them from nasty words and images.

'I feel sorry for him', the blind Radio 4 presenter Peter White said of the fallen Hoddle, 'because he's only saying what he believes, as daft as it may be. I would hope that disabled people would be more robust than to be alarmed or concerned by them'. A little more robustness would not go amiss among the rest of us, either.

Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk