As we’re charging our glasses this New Year’s Eve, and mulling over an extraordinary year—a year of civil war and uncivil strife, of natural disasters and unnatural acts of violence—we should spare a thought for the good men and women of the American Dialect Society, whose mission it is to select just one word from the multitudinous melting pot of English that will stand as a monument to this turbulent twelve months. Inaugurated in 1991, the ADS’s word of the year has been dominated in recent times by coinages of a technological nature. In 2010 ‘app’ took the honours, while in 2009 the laurels fell to ‘tweet’. Nominations for the word of the decade showed a similarly hi-tech bias. ‘Blog’ and ‘wi-fi’ both made the shortlist, while the winner, ‘google’ (the verb, not the noun), looks perfectly at home next to its predecessor, ‘web’.
Needless to say, these words are all neologisms, which perhaps tells us something interesting about our love of, or addiction to, the new. But according to the ADS’s guidelines, the word of the year doesn’t have to be new; it just has to be ‘newly prominent [and] indicative or reflective of the national discourse’. For that reason, I wonder if the ADS panel might dispense with its recent technophilia and pick instead an established word to which new meaning, or at least new force, would appear to be accruing every year. The word I have in mind is ‘offensive’.
An inoffensive little word, to be sure, but as a glance at the last few years will confirm, offendedness is now ubiquitous (or ‘viral’, as the modern parlance has it). Its manifestations range from the trivial: the forced resignation of a Kiwi broadcaster for poking fun at an Indian politician, outrage at an incautious tweet describing South African rugby fans as ‘faggots’; to the important: the sacking of several US journalists for allegedly overstepping the mark in racial or religious matters, the depressing furore over plans to build an Islamic centre in downtown New York; to the existential: the inexhaustible determination of religious extremists in the Islamic world to kill all those who insult their beliefs. Everywhere we look offence is being taken, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad ones, but always in a way that seems to imply that offence is something terrible in itself.
This new mood of censoriousness—of self-pity and self-righteousness—goes beyond political correctness. When, as prime minister, Kevin Rudd criticised the actor and comedian Robin Williams for describing Australians as ‘English rednecks’, suggesting that Williams might want to spend ‘a little time in Alabama’ before characterising Aussies thus, he was not taking umbrage on behalf of an oppressed minority but a dynamic modern democracy with an international reputation for plain speaking. Similarly, when Bob Riley, the Governor of Alabama, took offence at Rudd’s remarks, he was responding to a stereotype aimed principally at the white population of his state and not at its black minority. No, the language of respect and offence is something more general and less defined than the project to engineer greater equality by avoiding such language and habits of mind as tend to entrench discrimination. And while it is often self-satirising (as the Rudd-to-Williams-to-Riley-to-Rudd controversy demonstrates), it is also very bad for democracy and for the quality of public debate in general.
For at the very least such finger-wagging is a distraction from substantive issues; important questions of who we are and how we should live are lost in the tittle-tattle about who said precisely what about whom, and in what tone of voice, and with the use of which epithets. More seriously, it allows official censorship to creep back into political life. For example, the UN General Assembly has passed several recent resolutions condemning the ‘defamation of religions’. Since it was in the teeth of religious opposition that the right to freedom of speech was established (in those areas of the globe where it has been established), this is a very sinister development.
In one sense, our current obsession with offence is linked to political correctness, which originates in a desire for social justice, as opposed to, or as well as, political rights. Such rights as we in the West enjoy—the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of speech and assembly—have done much to alleviate the inequalities that have plagued humanity for most of its history. But rights, as Alexis de Tocqueville recognised, do not eradicate inequality. Nor, indeed, do they put a stop to racial prejudice or gender bias, and it was with this in mind that African Americans, gays and women took to the streets (and the lecture-room floors) in the 1960s. But while these movements were necessary, they also engendered a separatist mentality; people began to speak as if groups, rather than individuals, had rights. This was the beginning of ‘identity politics’, a phenomenon that received an enormous boost in the late 1980s and 1990s when, in the wake of the collapse of communism, sections of the traditional left began to refocus their ideological efforts away from issues of economics and class and towards the politics of ethnicity and gender. Training their guns on ‘offensive’ language in an effort to destroy deep-rooted prejudice, many institutions established ‘speech codes’ (lists of acceptable and unacceptable words), while in US universities some lecturers even began taping their lectures just in case they were accused of trespassing on racial or sexual sensitivities.
The problem with identity politics is that it tends to define people by one characteristic and prejudge their interests as influenced or even defined by that characteristic. Consequently, all subtlety is lost; whole communities become immune to criticism because any criticism of their individual members is taken as an attack on the group. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the liberal response, or lack of one, to the challenge of Islamic extremism. From the Rushdie fatwa in 1989 to the Danish cartoons controversy of 2005, many left-wing commentators have shown themselves unwilling or unable to defend the principle of freedom of speech when faced with a threat to that principle from members of a largely non-white community. Armed with a new term, ‘Islamophobia’—the perfect linguistic distillation of the current confusion of identity and belief—progressives play down reactionary attitudes in the cause of racial harmony, thereby neglecting their traditional anticlericalism and leaving the task of serious criticism to bumptious conservative commentators with their own anti-immigration agenda. Employing the language of respect and offence, liberals schooled in cultural relativism in effect make apologies for absolutist ideologies.
In his recent pamphlet That’s Offensive, British critic Stefan Collini identifies a ‘well-meaning condescension’ at the heart of this conspicuous failure. The assumption, often unconscious of course, is that members of minority groups are unable to engage in intelligent self-criticism, or to distinguish between an attack on their identity and criticism of their beliefs and practices. Free speech is just a Western piety; the important thing is to engender ‘respect’ for those who do not share our values. Because the most spectacular offence tends to occur in disadvantaged minorities, it is often assumed that the offence must be linked, or even reducible, to that disadvantage. Time and again we hear it said that it is the job of journalists and commentators to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But this ignores the imbalance of power within the disadvantaged minority. Is Sheik Hilaly, the Australian imam who described women as ‘uncovered meat’, a member of a disadvantaged minority or a nasty little misogynist? The answer, surely, is that he is both, and we ought to be able to combine ‘respect’ for the minority from which he happens to come with outright contempt for his views on women, while also enquiring into whether such views are prevalent in the Muslim community. Too often Western commentators are content to let bullies pose as victims. Recently, Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Centre in Florida made good on his threat to burn the Koran. Subsequently, seven UN workers were killed by rioters in Afghanistan. Ignoring the fact that the pastor’s desire to give offence was more than matched by the desire of many others to take it, the head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, had this to say: ‘I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news—the one who burned the Koran.’ Here, ‘well-meaning condescension’ becomes strenuous (and dangerous) apologetics.
But it isn’t only liberals who use the language of respect and offence. The phenomenon of conspicuous indignation encompasses much more than what the philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls ‘the tyranny of [Western] guilt’—the kind of liberal masochism that must always stress the Caliphate’s achievements while underlining Christendom’s crimes and that in Australia finds its clearest expression in the black armband view of history. No, the right too has its sensitivities, as Robert Hughes noted in his splenetic account of American society, Culture of Complaint. Running in tandem with political correctness, and ultimately traceable to the same Puritan heritage, is what Hughes calls ‘patriotic correctness’, the browbeating of political opponents for undermining national pride. And since national pride is the very thing that cultural relativism calls into question, the dragon slayers of the conservative press are never more exquisitely dyspeptic than when taking some pinko academic to task for failing to call a spade a spade. In one sense, both sides need each other. Political correctness and patriotic correctness are locked in an antagonistic tango.
However, the indignation of the right goes beyond the traditional counteroffensive against cultural relativism and political correctness. The way in which right-wing US politicians tried to exploit the controversy over the Park 51 Islamic Centre—by characterising it as a ‘monument’ to terrorism or comparing it to a Nazi sign placed outside a Holocaust museum—was the purest demagoguery, no less cynical than the Islamists’ attempt to engineer an international crisis by parading a handful of ‘offensive’ caricatures around North Africa and the Middle East. In the current feverish atmosphere of hyperbolic argumentation, offence means viewers and votes; it plays. Thus, when President Barack Obama compared the US economy to a car that had been driven into a ditch by the previous administration and suggested that the Republicans were now banished to the back seats, some Fox News blowhards chose to interpret it as a veiled reference to segregation, implying that Obama was settling old scores. Since to entertain such a ridiculous theory they’d have to be as stupid as they look, one can only assume that they thought the story would go down well with their regular viewers. Thus the media makes its own news in the process of reporting it, combining the weaponisation of offence and offence-as-entertainment in one hit.
Of course this is nothing but rabble-rousing. But what of the rabble’s apparent willingness, eagerness even, to be thus roused? This too is part of the legacy of the sixties. ‘[I]f the personal was political,’ writes Caspar Melville in Taking Offence, referring to the popular slogan of the Counterculture, ‘then wasn’t the political really personal?’ Alongside massive political changes, the sixties witnessed an assault on reticence—an assault to which the modern tendency towards ostentatious emotionalism is the heir. The hysterical self-exposure of daytime television, misery memoirs, the therapy culture—these are the bawling children of the sixties, narcissistic, blameful and, above all, noisy. The emphasis, as Hughes says, is always on the subjective, on ‘how we feel about things, rather than what we think or can know’. ‘Not in my name!’ and ‘No blood on my hands!’ screamed the anti-war placards in 2003—slogans that managed to reduce the decision of whether to go to war in Iraq to an advertisement for self-righteous indignation. Thus does feeling take its place at the head of our political priorities.
Such personalisation creates an environment in which everybody’s ‘truth’ is legitimate. Consequently, the very foundation of knowledge and objectivity is undermined. Even in academia, incompetent or dishonest scholarship is often allowed to pass unmolested if to question it would necessitate a challenge to its (racial or sexual) ‘narrative’. In short: ‘I feel therefore I am.’
In the seventeenth century, T.S. Eliot suggested, English poets lost the ability to think and feel at the same time; they experienced a ‘dissociation of sensibility’. We too are experiencing a dissociation of sensibility, though ours is political, not poetical. Increasingly, the statement ‘I find that offensive’ is taken as an argument in itself; the complainant is not called upon to justify his feelings. But without some debate about why it is that we find certain attitudes or words offensive, the quality of public debate is degraded. Indeed, we become so comfortable in our positions that we are in danger of forgetting why we are offended. This is a recipe for intellectual laziness. By engaging with other points of view, we call into question our own positions, refining them when they need refining and discarding them when they are shown to be flawed. That is why the philosopher A.C. Grayling says that the right to freedom of speech is the most important right of all because, without it, it is simply impossible to subject all our other rights to scrutiny.
To ban an opinion is to ban not only the right of a person to express that opinion but also everyone’s right to hear it. In such circumstances the claim to be offended is no more than an assertion of moral superiority—an article of political faith, which, like religious faith, will brook no challenge. When the biologist James Watson made some off-the-cuff remarks about race and intelligence in the middle of a book tour, he caused such offence that the tour was discontinued. But we cannot wish such issues away, and the more they are ignored the more toxic they become. Though not known for its intellectual rigour, the far right has its philosophical wing, and we had better get our arguments straight if the racist parties of Europe and elsewhere are not to continue their resurgence. With whom would you rather have the discussion about the link between ‘race’ and intelligence? The co-discoverer of DNA or the gentleman with the swastika tattoo?
What we need is a political version of cognitive behavioural therapy. We need to subject our feelings to scrutiny and ask if they are justified. Of course, this is often difficult to do. Recent research in neuroscience has thrown light on the relationship between feelings and beliefs, suggesting that the two are not as distinct as ‘rational’ human beings might like to think. But the ‘theory of motivated reasoning’ does not let Homo sapiens off the hook. No doubt it’s true that we human beings are adapted to respond aggressively to slights and challenges that undermine our status. But civilisation demands that we keep such feelings in check and consider the issues. The claim that we find something hurtful or offensive should be the beginning of the debate, not the end of it.
In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More is dramatically transformed from the religious bigot he undoubtedly was into something like an Enlightenment martyr. The play is about the freedom to speak, or, more accurately, not to speak, since it is by exercising his right to silence that More attempts to protect his beliefs. In the end, of course, More goes to his death for refusing to take the oath of supremacy. But it is only by violating his ancient rights that his accusers are able to convict him of treason. The point of the play is that free speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom to offend. To forget that would be cultural suicide.