Of the many tedious things to become increasingly accepted as we hurtle down the passage of time towards the sun exploding and destroying this planet we call home, the growing social power of being offended is amongst the most regrettable. A growth magnified, in part, by the emergence of Twitter and Facebook, which tend to gift the world four grievances for every one nicety. Of course being offended by something is not, in and of itself, wrong or unusual in any way; after all, how can it be? Being offended is often an individual’s natural gut reaction in a particular situation. Like laughing or fly-kicking. Demanding the right to not be offended, to never be offended, however, is in no way natural, doable or even realistic: rather, it’s a bit immature.
Bizarrely the defenders of the ‘right to offend’ have tended lately to exclude anyone beyond the usual boorish right-wing hot air balloons, the Katie Hopkins’ and Milo Yiannopoulos’ of the world; a sizable chunk of whom perversely make the bulk of their living by offending the easily offended, then watching their papers sell, the TV offers fly in and the online clicks stack up.
Abdicating concern for free expression to conservatives and first year International Relations types who write vacuous devil’s advocate positions for The Tab and roll around the GUU Drawing Room in red chinos is nothing less than a travesty for those of us on the left who believe in liberal values and nice trousers. Not least because the former tends more than anyone else to take great offence to any insinuation that the Queen is little more than decorative cutlery in human form, that not wearing a poppy in November large enough to pick up Sky TV means you HATE OUR TROOPS, or that prisoners making contact with flat screen TVs (are there any other kinds in 2015?) justifies the death penalty. Taking offence is apolitical. Pretty much everyone excluding the severest of stoners do it. If individuals of varying political persuasions stopped to catch a grip of themselves midway through churning out churlish Facebook comments and tweets, if these people shrugged their shoulders, agreed to disagree, perhaps even understood that they were being played harder than an Xbox by Hopkins et al, social media would not be such a mine field of angry, unlikable people with poor grammar. We are the world, la, la, etc.
In the words of drag mother supreme, RuPaul: “If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a fucking hard-ass road… I dance to the beat of a different drummer. I believe everybody — you can be whatever the hell you wanna be, I ain’t stopping you. But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or what I can’t — say or can’t do. It’s just words, like, ‘Yeah, you hurt me!’ Bitch, you need to get stronger. If you’re upset by something I said you have bigger problems than you think.”
A decent reason for not living in a bubble, demanding conformity of opinion and collective moral perfection at every turn, is that it such a world would be boring and false, like Made in Chelsea. Student unions up and down the country (though neither union at Glasgow, where all student bodies have stayed out of the NUS the same way a reasonable person stays out of their kitchen bin) wrestle regularly with safe space policies, clumsily open to awkward misinterpretation in a way which can blur the lines between real safety and an imagined academic safety from being disagreed with. Blurred, too, can be the lines between ‘hate speech’ i.e. incitement of violence, and opinions which merely offend.
Supporting an individual’s freedom to speak or write or generally be a dick does not equate to support of that person’s position. Anyone clever enough to pass exams and make it to university ought really by this point to comprehend the compatibility of such a concept with their own autonomous freedom of thought. So you’re offended by a poster in a student union or an article in the student paper or a blood-soaked pentagram on level six of the library drawn in salt to summon long-dead sprits back to Earth, so what? All this means is that the person who made the poster or wrote the article or sliced their arm in Satanic sacrifice is a bit of a wanker. You can regard them as a wanker. You are perfectly allowed, by virtue of being a free human, to do so. It’s perfectly reasonable and even if it weren’t, no one could stop you. It’s your mind.
What’s not reasonable is demanding seemingly offensive posters be taken down or demanding a perceivably offensive article be removed. Sure, a sensible organisation might be expected to do so anyway on the grounds that they don’t want to put themselves out in to the world with a distasteful image, that’s just basic PR. Such posturing and preening, though, is vastly different to having decisions effectively made externally by mob rule on the grounds of offence being caused. Correlation does not equal cause and effect, being offended does not mean that the material is most definitely offensive, nor does a negative reaction mean that materials should be banned on such grounds even if some imaginary court of propriety deemed it so. Grown adults sporting #JeSuisCharlie on their social media a year ago now demanding through Facebook that journalists be fired, that businesses be shut down, because of a political disagreement they have or a petty vengeance they want to chuck out in to the world are not the upholders of liberalism. So you’re offended, so what? To paraphrase Pope Britney of Spears (not Bobby Brown, never Bobby Brown), “That’s [your] perogative.”