Defend the Right to Be Offensive

Read spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London) on the fallout from Borisgate.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

If anything that is written here offends you, I am afraid that I am not truly sorry and I cannot sincerely apologise for it. Because I believe in the Right to Be Offensive. Which means I do not think that Boris Johnson, Tony Blair, myself or anybody else should ever be expected to apologise for saying something that they believe to be true.

The right to be offensive is a very unfashionable concept in our otherwise rights-obsessed age, when offending somebody’s feelings often seems to be considered the worst offence of all. We have come a long way from the old attitude of ‘Never apologise, never explain’ (variously ascribed to Wellington, Disraeli and other historical hardnoses), to the new one of demanding – and usually obtaining – apologies at the drop of a tear.

Witness the surreal spectacle of Mr Johnson, Tory MP and Editor of The Spectator, being sent north by his party leader this week to apologise, cycle-helmet-in-hand, to the people of Liverpool. Mr Johnson was supposed to do penance for his magazine’s editorial about the ‘mawkish sentimentality’ of public reactions to the murder of the hostage Kenneth Bigley, an article which made some crass remarks about Liverpudlians in general and the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy in particular. The problem was that Mr Johnson obviously still agreed with the central thrust of the article. So he ended up having to issue a ‘sincere’ apology for the hurt and offence it had caused, but not for the editorial itself.

Sorry, but this is ridiculous. If your sincerest desire is to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings, the answer is never to write or say anything controversial. But if we do want to express strong and sincerely held opinions, we will have to accept that some might be upset. That’s life, and it’s tough. Why should anybody feel obliged to apologise for what they believe, or worse, for what others feel?

The Spectator got its facts badly wrong about Hillsborough, claiming that ‘more than 50’ Liverpool supporters were killed in the Sheffield stadium (it was 96), and dredging up the old nonsense about ‘drunken fans’ being more to blame than the police. Those errors needed a correction. But it seems bizarre to demand that the editor of such a right-wing magazine should apologise, or even resign, over the fact that its sympathies lie more with the commanders of the South Yorkshire constabulary than with Scouse football fans. You might as well say he should apologise for voting Tory.

More and more now, we are expected to value feelings above thought, emotions above ideas. And the one emotion which appears to count above all others is feeling offended, or that your self-esteem has been damaged. Such suffering, many assume, demands an apology, if not compensation.

Yet nobody – not even the Bigleys or the Hillsborough relatives – should be entitled to demand silence from those whose ideas hurt their feelings. If we hope to live in an open and adult society, what is more important is feeling free to say what you think. Those who would really prefer to live in a world without offensive ideas and divisive opinions should perhaps consider going off to become a Tibetan monk – or perhaps an MP in Michael Howard ’s Tory party or Tony Blair’s new Labour. As Mr Howard’s overblown response to the storm in a Spectator teacup confirmed, the unapologetic expression of anything like a conviction or even an opinion can be considered too dangerous for our insipid politics.

Of course, upholding the right to be offensive does not mean allowing objectionable views to go unchallenged, on some spineless basis that everybody is entitled to his opinion. We must be free to go on the offensive against those whose opinions offend us – to attack, ridicule or even ignore them as we see fit. Far better to have a blazing exchange of ideas than sulkily to expect them to say sorry for not sharing or respecting your feelings.

The last thing we need now would be a society-wide equivalent of those e-mail filters that block any word which might offend anybody (‘black’ was the latest one I saw barred by a company’s software this week). The best way to protect free speech remains through an intellectual free-for-all. I leave the last word on this to another Johnson, arguably even more famous and clever than Boris – Dr Samuel: ‘Every man has the right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.’

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics Politics


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