It is important to defend the right to offend
Does it offend you, yeah?
For many of us, the answer is yes, frequently, and very much so. In recent times, and certainly since the advent of social media, taking offence has become the new competitive sport, the default mode of public discourse.
It is no longer enough to dislike what someone has said, or simply to disagree with it. Instead, you must draw yourself up to your full height, stick your nose in the air and declare – “that offends me”.
These are the magic words that instantly confer superior status, transforming lowly personal opinion into a matter of urgent public morality.
From “I am offended” it is only a short hop to “it is self-evidently offensive”, and then you’re away on your caper of Enjoyable outrage. Great fun – especially if you can persuade a spittle-flecked Twitter mob to accompany you. And ecause it is so much fun – or at least because it ameliorates the drudge, pain or disappointments of everyday life – many people seem to search out opportunities to take offence.
The recent unholy row over British writer Suzanne Moore’s use of the word “transsexual” is a case in point. In an essay about women’s rage, she wrote: “the cliche is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual”.
Moore was taken to task for this perceived crime by transgender activists, who said that calling someone a transsexual is like calling someone “a gay – really creepy . . . Trans women deserve solidarity, not implicit shaming”.
Soon she was being widely accused of transphobia and incitement to hate transsexual people, and this quickly degenerated into appalling abuse of Moore herself. Some of the attacks were so threatening that she reported them to the police.
Then the whole thing kicked off again when Moore’s friend, Julie Burchill, wrote a flaming zinger of an article in which she claimed that “a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look”. You can imagine how well that went down.
Now, I sympathise with the frustrations of trans people in a society that routinely either ignores or lampoons them. In an open letter to Moore, trans woman Paris Lees spoke about “the ever-present knowledge that trans people are objects of ridicule in public life, things to be referred to and smirked at, not real, valid living human beings with fears and weaknesses and hopes and dreams”. I have spent time with trans people here in Ireland, listening to their stories, writing about their experiences, and I have been moved by their courage in the face of heartless ignorance and terrible cruelty.