I’m not being offensive because I’m a cunt, I’m doing it for you

Offensiveness is the coursing lifeblood of human progress


On 5 March I spoke in proposition of the motion “This House believes that freedom of speech always includes the right to offend”. We won by 319 votes to 70. My speech is published below.

Seven hundred years ago, if someone had come to Oxford and stood here and said, “I think everyone should be allowed to read the Bible, even peasants”, that person would have been described as offensive. He would have been denounced, shouted at, and eventually no-platformed.

That was certainly the experience of John Wycliffe. In 1382 he was banished from Oxford for, among other things, translating the Bible into English. His work was described as an offence against the ecclesiastical order.

Two hundred years ago, if someone had come to Oxford and stood here and said, “I don’t believe in God”, that person would have been described as offensive. He would have been ridiculed, yelled at.

Brendan O'Neill is the editor of Spiked

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked

That was certainly the experience of Shelley, who in 1811 was banished from Oxford for writing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism.

One historical account describes how Shelley’s pamphlet caused “maximum offence”. It describes how fellows and students at New College “swept the pamphlets up” and disposed of them — much like today’s student leaders sweep up copies of The Sun, which they also describe as causing “maximum offence”.

One hundred years ago, if someone had come to Oxford and stood here and said, “I think a man should be allowed to have sex with another man”, that person would have been described as offensive. He would have been booed, hissed at, no-platformed.

That was certainly the experience of The Chameleon, an openly gay Oxford magazine which in 1894 survived for one issue only. Why? Because it was offensive. One observer called it as “an insult to the animal creation”; there was talk of it having a “dangerous influence on the young”.

In other words, it made Oxford an unsafe space, and therefore it had to be stopped — much as today’s student leaders ban openly laddish magazines in the name of preserving safe spaces for students.

So when today’s student leaders clamp down on offensive stuff, they’re actually carrying on a very long tradition. A tradition whereby the creme de la creme of British society takes it upon themselves to police the parameters of acceptable thought, to patrol the outskirts of right and proper thinking, and to outlaw offensiveness in the academy.

Throughout history, the church, politicians, universities, various moral movements have always branded certain ideas “offensive” and have waged war against them. Today, student leaders do the same. They carry out one of the oldest, foulest forms of intolerance — intolerance of those who give offence.

Brendan was debating against Tim Squirrell

Brendan was debating against Tim Squirrell

But giving offence is good – it is essential, in fact. Humans have long had the urge to offend against the natural order, the religious order, the moral order, and in the process they have pushed humanity forward.

In fact, pretty much every leap forward in history, pretty much every freedom and comfort we enjoy, is a product of individuals having given offence, having offended against the orthodoxies of their age. Offensiveness is not just something we have to begrudgingly accept — offensiveness is the very motor of human progress.

Copernicus offended Christians with his assertion that the Sun was at the centre of the solar system. He really hurt some of them. And in the process he made the world a better, more understandable place.

John Wilkes, the 18th century radical journalist, offended everyone. He packed his newspapers not only with political commentary but also with sex and lies and tales of bishops buggering their maids. And in the process, through his struggles with the authorities, he gave birth to press freedom.

The newspaper Gay News caused profound offence to Christians in 1976 when it published a poem about a Roman centurion giving Christ a blow job. And in the process, in its struggles with the authorities, it started a debate about the blasphemy laws that would eventually contribute to their abolition — expanding freedom of speech for you and me and everyone.

The right to offend is not some pesky little part of freedom of speech that we have to put up with — it is the heart and soul and lungs of freedom of speech. It is the coursing lifeblood of human progress. It is the instigator of liberty and modernity and science and understanding.

What a laughing stock today’s student leaders are, that they can so casually dismiss the right to be offensive without realising that their lovely, enlightened lives are the gift of individuals who gave offence; the gift of scientists, thinkers, agitators who bravely showed their arses to the dominant ideas of their eras. Their offensiveness made you free.

I know what some student leaders will say: “Oh, but our no-platforming is only about protecting individuals. We only want to protect women from misogyny and black students from racism, so our intolerance is progressive.”

Please. How progressive is it to suggest that female students are so fragile that they can’t cope with seeing a pair of tits in The Sun? Because that doesn’t sound progressive to me — it sounds paternalistic.

How progressive is it to say black students need these wise, white student leaders to protect them from harmful ideas? Because that doesn’t sound progressive to me — it sounds neo-colonialist.

The fact is, today’s student leaders aren’t protecting individuals — they’re protecting an *idea*, and it’s the most mainstream, status quo idea of the 21st century.

It’s the idea of human weakness and incapacity; the poisonous notion that humans are fragile and therefore our speech and our interactions with each other must be monitored and policed and always checked for danger. It is this utterly orthodox, misanthropic idea that they promote, and protect from criticism, just as surely as priests once ringfenced their beliefs from ridicule.

In this choking, censorious climate, where everything is treated as potentially offensive and all sorts of people are no-platformed or safe-spaced, we’ve got to move beyond talking about a right to offend — we have to talk about a duty to offend.

Anyone who cares for freedom and truth, anyone who believes that humanity only progresses through being daring and sometimes disrespectful, now has a duty to rile and stir and outrage; a duty to break out of the new grey conformism; a duty to ridicule these new guardians of decency; a duty to tell them: “Fuck your orthodoxies.”