Please may I offend you?

warning: this post contains words you may find offensive

I’m a lover of BBC radio 4, and top of my list of people to get stuck in a lift with would have to be Eddie Mair, the presenter of ‘PM’. If you are reading this in North America, his show is a great window into the British psyche. It goes out at 17:00 GMT, worth a listen if you can find it online.

This evening (9-Nov-17) he ran a piece about offensive language, specifically the use of swear words on radio. The item took the form of a conversation with the excellent stand-up comedian, Janey Godley (who, sadly did not manage to get Eddie to say “fuck”), and the fab writer Harry Ritchie. It grabbed me because I’m in the process of putting together a radio show about creative writing and have had to get to grips with the rules and regs relating to what I can say on air in the UK.

Eddie and his guests took the line that one needs to be sensitive about causing offence and choose language accordingly. Harry Ritchie also made the point that our reluctance to use offensive words is a feature of our increasingly tolerant society (meaning I guess that as we become more tolerant of different cultures and world-views, we are more sensitive and careful not to ride over the feelings of others). Quite right too. I couldn’t disagree with any of that. But it did start me thinking.

What I wanted to post up here for debate was something about the generic topic of causing offence – how we currently (in the UK) think about it, and why (I say) we’ve got it wrong. I’d like to know what you think….

Here’s my view

Straight out of the box I’d have to say that I do not think it is right to deliberately and provocatively offend people (although I have been guilty of doing just that at times). I think that we’re all in this together, and that we should be nice to one another. I think we have ‘the right’ to offend, but I do not think it is ‘right’ so to do.

But…

I do have a problem with the way the conversation around causing offence seems to be going (I’m talking UK here). My position is articulated beautifully by the most excellent Stephen Fry who said “you’re offended…so fucking what?” (See 1:10 here)

Being ‘offended’ is just whining.

Why are we so very worried about causing offence? Could it be that it is our inability to deal properly with being offended that is at the root of much of our angst? If you offend me should I not be able to take it on the chin?

To put it in another context – I spent a little of my life as a biomedical scientist. One thing that remains with me from those dark-days is the knowledge that no matter how clever you are at trying to control ‘nasties’, ultimately the battle is won or lost by your immune system.

Isn’t it the same with offence?

Would it not be healthier to be ‘immune’ to offence that try to eradicate it from our language or our discourse?

So, here’s the thing

I’m not advocating a world where we all go out of our way to be overtly offensive to one another. Life is hard and can be made much (much) better by a kind word or a gentle remark. This should be our default position.

What I guess I am saying is that if we focus on trying not to cause offence, we end up in a right old pickle. If we take the view that we must not cause offence, the unintended consequence is that we turn ‘the offended’ into a victim. “I have a right not to be offended. You offended me, I am wronged.”

Thinking of oneself as a victim is disempowering. Allowing oneself to be offended is a bad thing.

My view is that we should look at the issue from the other side of the fence. Instead of concentrating on not causing offence, why not develop a culture where being offended ‘feels’ OK; a culture where we are all robust enough to ask ourselves why we are offended by a remark or opinion, and if (as is typical) it is because it rubs up against a belief we hold, take a moment to examine our own world-view.

I am offended by loads of stuff (Bishops sitting in the House of Lords, State funding of faith schools, the ruination of Star Wars) but none of this does me any harm. Being offended isn’t nice. I don’t like it. But it does not make me feel like a victim. I do admit to shouting at the telly now and then, but in my brighter moments being offended about an issue shines a light on my own beliefs and gives me a chance to address my own prejudices.

So tomorrow, I’m going to start to ‘help’ others develop an immunity to offence. I shall go out for a walk, and instead of saying ‘good morning’ to strangers, I shall fix them in the eye and say “the Queen’s a man”, or “your perfume is very powerful, have you considered washing as an alternative?” I shall smile at parents with babies and say “your child is ugly.” In these and other small ways I shall seek to make the world a better, more robust place.

Actually, no, I won’t do any of that. I just think we’re looking at the issue from the wrong end that’s all. I think that instead of attempting to eradicate offence, we should learn to suck it up, to develop an immunity to it. But then I just write crappy sci-fi, so what the fuck do I know.
Love to hear your thoughts – @AdamEBradbury for twittering or via comments here.

Until next time…all good things to you…and remember you have the right to write!

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2 thoughts on “Please may I offend you?

  1. I listened while driving to my creative writing meeting last night. The thought that ‘posh’ swearing is less offensive was enlightening – do we discriminate foul language between regions? I swear when I’m angry but not usually in public – that’s due to my upbringing. We wear language like we wear clothes, to reflect our personality.

    Liked by 1 person

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