Stephen Fry once said that the best response to bleaters who say “I’m offended by that!” is “Well, so fucking what?”
To make a public spectacle of your offended feelings, to cry about how rattled you feel by something you saw or heard, is “no more than a whine”, Fry said. And therefore “it has no meaning”.
He’s right. Today’s battalions of offence-takers are just glorified moaners. They simply do in public what those always-offended old ladies with blue rinses used to do in private.
In the pre-internet era, when tweeting was something only birds did, elderly offence-takers would post irate letters to some TV station or newspaper that pissed them off. Now, courtesy of the internet, everyone with a gripe, whatever their age, whatever their political bent, can splutter their outrage online.
There’s a veritable outrage industry. From Twittermobs who condemn anyone who says something shocking, to super-sensitive students who ban lads’ mags, Robin Thicke and phrases that they judge to be “microaggressions”, everyone’s taking offence. And everyone’s insisting that the thing that offended them be squashed.
It’s like we all think we should be protected by our own personal blasphemy law. Once, it was only the likes of Christ who was guarded from “scurrilous, reviling or contemptuous” material; now we’re all little Jesuses, demanding: “That thing made me feel bad – destroy it!”
Such endless confected fury, such non-stop churn of personal outrage, isn’t only grating – it’s a barrier to free thought, and even progress.
It invites social paralysis, encouraging us all to obsessively edit our thoughts and police our blather, lest we unwittingly affront someone who has their offence antennae turned up to 10.
Worse, it acts like a deadweight on the ankle of artistic experimentation and intellectual daring.
If everything from a saucy music video (like Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’) to the arguments of libertarian feminist scholar Christina Hoff Somers (who is booed off American campuses) can crank up the outrage machine, then people will think: “I better not express that risky thought lurking in my head. I’ll just leave it there, to gather dust.”
both giving offence and receiving offence are wonderful things
So I’d go further than Fry. The fashion for wailing “I’m offended!” is more than an irritant. It’s the enemy of cultural, political and personal freedom. It nurtures a climate of “You Can’t Say That!” It gives rise to self-silencing, making people hold back the edgy stuff in their minds, most of which will be nonsense, yeah, but some of which just might be era-shakingly interesting.
We shouldn’t only tell the easily offended to quit their whimpering. We should tell them that being offended is good. Far from harming us, it helps us. It forces us to think; it toughens us up; it builds our backbone.
Both giving offence and receiving offence are wonderful things. Indeed, all the freedoms we cherish, all the tech and comforts we enjoy, are the gift of people who gave offence.
If Copernicus hadn’t offended priests with his insistence that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the centre of the solar system, we wouldn’t live in such a scientifically clued-up world. If the Suffragettes hadn’t offended against the natural order, and demanded that women should have the same political say as blokes, we’d still be living in an unequal world. If the publishers of men’s mags – like this one – hadn’t offended the bejesus out of the buttoned-up brigade in the 1950s and 60s, then the sexual revolution might never had happened and many of us would be stuck in a loveless, sexless rut.
The “offensiveness” of earlier generations, their willingness to rail against orthodoxies, made our lives freer, happier, fulfilling.
Then there’s taking offence. Everyone should open themselves up to offence. You should feel shaken to your core at least once a day. It’s good for you. Don’t stamp out things that offend you; cherish them, embrace them.
The greatest liberal, John Stuart Mill, argued in 1859 that we must allow our beliefs to be “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed”, because otherwise those beliefs become “dead dogmas”.
In other words, if you cut yourself off from ridicule, and dodge public debate, you become a robot, thinking in a fixed, rigid, dogmatic way. It is only by opening ourselves up to the possibility of being offended that we can give our brain cells a workout and our imagination a spring clean.
Living in an offence-free bubble will turn you into a bore and a tyrant. Burst out of it. Today, go out and offend someone, and let someone offend you. You’ll both benefit.