A lively and passionate defence of reasoned debate Everyone has taken and given offence; anyone who claims they haven't is either lying or uniquely tolerant. Yet in recent years, offence has become more than an expression of annoyance it's now a form of political currency. Politicians and religious leaders have mastered the......
|Title||:||On Offence: The Politics of Indignation|
|Number of Pages||:||248 Pages|
|Status||:||Available For Download|
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On Offence: The Politics of Indignation Reviews
The cover of this book just has the title and author’s name repeated five times. But my daughter Georgia spotted at once that one F and one OFF are in red – look, it says F OFF! This is a book in favour of free speech and against PC but the author is a lefty. It traces a great dollop of recent cultural and political history to explain how we in the West have created such a poison cloud of morbid oversensitivity, irascibility, aggravation, public hurt, censorship, self-censorship, bellicose shock-jock posturings, tea party caperings, leftist-fascist intertwinings and a wholesale miasma of distrust and good-intentioned own-foot-shooting that sensible debate is almost a thing of the past. The paradox is as plain as day and makes the case all by itself : to insist on respect and sensitivity is not to build a kinder society but one in which frustrations multiply and fester.To follow all this you have to have a sense of humour - the story is so absurd. Human stupidity is displayed under bright unsparing light, it’s a supermarket of wrongness we have here, all the way from frothing nut jobs like Pastor Terry Jones, the guy who set fire to the Koran, to urbane types like Prof Alan Gribben who published an edition of Huckleberry Finn substituting the word “slave” for the n word. The way RK tells it, and I pretty much agree, the 1960s counterculture was defeated by 1970, by itself through drug burnout and by the batons and gassings of the state (see the fantastic Nixonland for a blow-by-blow account;and see the rise and fall of the Black Panthers for a lurid example). What came after the 60s was the indulgences of the Me Decade, as Tom Wolfe called it. The left had to accept that the revolution wasn’t going to happen. When the USSR melted in 1990, that was just switching off the life support system which had kept the brain-dead alternative to capitalism suspended in its parody of life for decades. So if the left couldn’t replace capitalism, the only thing to do was to try to make it better, and hence, the PC movement, which itself was fed by many streams, from feminism, anticolonialism, structuralism, ism ism ism (as John Lennon said). This led, of course, to the right wing backlash against PC. The backlash included stunts like the British tabloid press inventing stories wholesale – one famous one is that a nursery in Hackney (left wing London borough) banned “Baa Baa Black Sheep” because it was racist. It wasn’t true but I think most of the country still remembers it as a terrible example of loony-leftism. RK refers to a recent American backlash book with such a preposterous title I thought it was his own heavy-handed spoof invention : The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought – but then I found it:You can see the same thing happening with the old global warming debate. The right hates this argument with a passion, whatever 97% of climate scientists say, because they see global warming as a Trojan horse – if you accept it, you’ll have to wave bye-bye to your Chevrolet Equinox or perhaps more pertinently your vague hope of one day being able to afford a Chevrolet Equinox; and solar panels on your head will be compulsory. And your kids will be given muesli at school, which will have come from a 5 mile radius of the school to save those evil food miles. The right’s idea of freedom is the freedom of poor people to think that they might one day have a guitar shaped swimming pool along with the freedom of the rich to ensure that that will probably never happen. But I digress. This book is born of three convictions : that the principle of free speech is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to offend; that the claim to find something hurtful or offensive should be the beginning of the debate, not the end of it; and that the modern fetish for sensitivity is corrosive of genuine civility.So he’s not saying he wants everyone just to play nicely with each other; he wants people to be more robust. It’s not “don’t be so offensive”, it’s “don’t be so offended”. Well, I’m not convinced that authors wagging their fingers at us all will help matters. In fact, now I come to think of it, what gives Richard King the right to lecture us on what we can or cannot say? Hey, Richard King, here’s some free speech for you : take your three stars and F OFF!
I had quite a ride reading this book. It took me so long not because the prose was turgid (it wasn’t) or because the content wasn’t interesting (it was), but because at times I found it maddening and needed to step back and think it over for a while. I took notes throughout, ending up with four and a half pages. I won’t subject you to them all, just the salient points. The thesis of ‘On Offence’ is that politics and popular culture are being degraded by a defensive victim mentality that leads to the reflexive taking of offence. In King’s view, this precludes a proper dialogue over areas of difference and continues the trend of polarisation in politics.King’s book is more or less bound to annoy everyone at some point, given that he takes aim at both left- and right-wing offence-taking. I myself was happy enough until I reached his characterisation of ‘political correctness’ in the second chapter. King considers the antecedents of this much-discussed phenomenon to be university social science departments and their fascination with post-structuralism. This leads, he claims, to a troubling level of cultural relativism. Firstly, in my experience the social sciences are dominated by neoclassical economic theory rather than post-structuralism, so I think he might be thinking more of the arts disciplines. Secondly, the problem I have with his critique of political correctness is that it never articulates why political correctness is a bad thing per se. As he comments on page 68, ‘The aim of political correctness is to liberate the disempowered’. Surely this is a noble aim? In any case, King is largely able to provide evidence of political correctness in terms of its hyperbolic backlash in the media and politics. He debunks a number of ‘PC gone mad!!’ tabloid stories, for example. To be fair, in latter chapters King frames identity politics and its detractors in a far more nuanced manner. Nonetheless, what he doesn’t cover is why what is termed political correctness came to exist in the first place - because groups that were discriminated against no longer wanted to be.I’ve noticed that when political correctness is mentioned, there is generally talk of ‘You’re not allowed to say that’ (where ‘that’ is usually some tired stereotype or offensive word). Of course, there is actually no way of stopping anyone from saying ‘that’. Political correctness is rather a misnomer for informing people that their actions, words, or stereotyping are rude. They can very well continue being rude, but why not be polite instead? There is, as King notes, a huge defensiveness about the blacklash against political correctness. It takes the form of equating free speech with being impolite, even when you know that what you’re saying is such. Politeness is a term that King doesn’t really discuss, but is definitely due a renaissance in political and the media. It is more than possible to disagree with someone politely. Anyway, now that I’ve covered the point at which I took offence, I can talk about the elements that I found especially interesting. King connects the rise in offence-taking with the decline of the Left. Abandoning solidarity and a class-based conception of society from the 1970s, left-wing politics became more concerned with identities. King expresses this rather powerfully as an abandonment of building a better (post-capitalist, implicitly) world, in favour of making the current (capitalist) world slightly more bearable. This is a fair assessment, although I find King’s characterisation of identity politics rather reductive. He thinks such an approach turns the individual into a list of identities, in the same manner that stereotyping does. What this doesn’t consider is the difference between defensively labelling oneself and being unwillingly labelled. It also seems unreasonable to expect people who experience a common negative experience (say, sexism) not to band together in solidarity against a more powerful group. I think King is critiquing the adversarial and defensive nature of identity politics, however it is difficult to see where else the left could have gone. Incidentally, King considers the main features of the current left to be cultural relativism and identity essentialism. There is a certain amount of truth there, although ironically there is little that is more culturally relative than the nature of a left- or right-wing identity.King really hits his stride in the latter half of the book, when looking in more detail at US politics and the US model of news, combined with social media. The disproportionate responses to particular incidents that caused offense are examined. This was the kind of analysis I was hoping for from this book, of the seemingly reflexive offence-responses that ripple through the news, twitter, etc with great regularity. These incidents seem to feature a compulsion to take a view for or against and a near-complete absence of nuance in between. Moreover, such twitterstorms and media scandals nearly always flare intensely for a very short time, then die down and are forgotten for the next thing. King associates this cultural tendency with politics ‘as a clash of identities, as an expression of (or assault on) our individuality’. Such politics are inherently narcissistic, something I haven’t seen astutely identified elsewhere. As King puts it, ‘political views are less reasoned responses to the world as it is, subject to change when the facts cease to support them, as they are expressions of personality.’ Climate change deniers are a notable case study of that.I must admit, I am rather a post-structuralist and wonder to what extent personal politics have always been similarly narcissistic throughout history. How can we know? What is more important is the way in which current technological, economic, and social trends have brought this tendency to the fore and made it a destabilising influence on society. King believes that a ‘culture of offense and sensitivity’ and ‘laws restricting freedom of expression’ re-inforce one another. That’s certainly plausible. There follows a discussion seeking to distinguish between offence and harm, which deserves a whole book to itself. One worrying feature of the internet’s offence-taking is the speed with which it degenerates into violent threats, generally associated with some identity (for example, rape threats to women). King doesn’t discuss this, possibly because, as he admits on page 226 he is a white man so never gets exposed to it. I agree with him that ‘argument and articulation are nearly always better than raw emotion’, but that is challenging (if rewarding) in person, with familiar people. On the internet, interacting with strangers, it becomes exponentially more difficult. Overall, this is an interesting and inevitably contentious book on a vexed subject. King’s main conclusion is that limits to free speech are a bad idea and a slippery slope. He has little to say on how to engender a more considered, reflective, and fact-supported media and political discourse. (Expropriation of the Murdoch empire might help?) Then there is the question of whether anonymity online inevitably leads to offence-taking and bad behaviour. I hope not. There remain a lot of problems with private vs public spaces online and normalising some degree of civic inattention. This book certainly validated a couple of my own views on internet use - a) it is utterly pointless to get into arguments on social media, and b) don’t read the comments. I’m glad I persisted with ‘On Offence’, it was thought-provoking throughout, whether I agreed with what I was reading or not. I also loved the description of Glen Beck et al as ‘abominable showmen’.
This is a thought provoking, well referenced, and surprisingly easy read. Of course some shit-for-brains, maybe you even, might struggle to get past page one. Incited? Well you shouldn't be, or at least you shouldn't be rushing to court to have me found guilty of discrimination because I've hurt your feelings. That rather unsubtle grenade might give you a sense of what "On Offence" attempts to untangle in it's attempt to defend freedom of speech. Subtitled 'The Politics of Indignation' the book moves across the political divide starting left then moving right, applying some logic, precedent, and acknowledged wisdom (or lack of it) to the idea of free speech, and also how the defense of it has itself been turned into a sacred cow by the right. An "I take offence that you dared offend me' type of circular argument. The author appears to feel more comfortable rooted on the left. I sensed fair criticism of that side but as the book progresses the weight of the analysis and implied criticism shifts a little too far to the right for my liking. Rather than move the book through a series of he said she said arguments it felt more like a 'He said" then a big dump of what "She said".Was it important for the Author to say he finds Australian conservative commentator Andrew Bolt offensive and earlier suggest (how could he possibly ever know the truth) that George Negus did not slyly imply a war hero was a dud root when he knew about the heros IVF treatment? For me neither comment was necessary and appeared more of a nod to a center left publishing culture. "Hey I'm defending a right winger here but I'm still one of you." That aside, there is no doubt the author has captured a worthy topic for debate and I wholeheartedly agree with the proposition that the claim to be offended should be the beginning of the argument not the end of it.
In a public discourse increasingly characterised by vitriol and the giving/taking of offence, and one only needs to look to the likes of talk-back radio shock jocks and the ongoing rants of members of the commentariat to know it is on the increase, this book is a timely contribution to the history and 'rationale' that lies behind the politics of indignation.As I read the book I found myself nodding in recognition of what the author was saying, and also, and perhaps more frighteningly, recognising that I too engage in the politics of offence (hopefully not with the same degree of vitriol) that is rapidly becoming part of society's public discourse.This is a very passionate and thoughtful analysis of the way society is, and a plea for a recognition of what is happening and to a walking back from the brink that is characterised as the politics of identity and the determination to avoid people taking offence from the utterance of others (through a paternalistic censoring of public speech).I highly recommend this book to anyone who might be concerned about the nature of the way we act and speak in public.From the blurb:Everyone has taken and given offence; anyone who claims they haven't is either lying or uniquely tolerant. Yet in recent years, offence has become more than an expression of annoyance - it's not a form of political currency. Politicians and religious leaders have mastered the art of indignation to motivate their supporters or deflect unwanted attention, and the news cycle has become increasingly dominated by reports on these tiny tempests.In this provocative account, Richard King explores how the politics of offence is poisoning public debate. With hurt feelings being paraded like union banners, we've ushered in a new mood of censoriousness, self-pity, and self-righteousness. Unofficial censorship has even led to official censorship; blowing the dust off old blasphemy laws, we are moving forward into the past. Yet King contends that freedom of speech is meaningless without the freedom to offend, and that the claim to be offended should be the beginning of the argument, not the end of it.Politeness is a noble quality, and decorum will always have its place. But when respect comes at the cost of honest criticism, it's time for us to think again.
An interesting read. Quite well researched and well argued, King says the things that we're all thinking about this culture of victimhood, offence taking and squashing of freedom of speech. He makes a particular point of the hypocrisy with which some instances of offence are prosecuted and others are not, which is quite a topical issue at present. I don't agree with everything he says and I think that's half the fun, and is in fact his point. The simple and main argument of this book is that it is not enough to say that one is offended and then expect that something be done to remedy that. King argues that the expression of taking offence at something should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it. I quite agree.
A must read for any true advocate of freedom of expression. Offence should be the beginning of a debate not the end of it.
I think a lot of people I went to college with desperately need to read this book.
Freedom of speech is necessary. Being a selfish cunt probably isn't.