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On Offence:

The Politics of Indignation

Richard King

(Listener Interview)

Your extensive use of quotation in On Offence suggests this is a topic that has been written about from various angles before. What prompted you to add your own book to all this? And what sets it apart?

Well, it's not for me to say. I hope what sets the book apart is that it's dealing with a new situation - a situation in which the taking of offence has become a kind of political currency. If I press refresh on a few old arguments, it's because I think they can help us understand not only how we got here but where we go now.

You admit to your indignation about indignation. The important distinction is what you do with that indignation: you reserve the right to take offence, but not the right not to be offended.

Yes, that's it in a nutshell. If you're not offended, and offended regularly, you should ask the nurse to check your pulse. But the claim to find something hurtful or offensive should be the beginning of the debate, not the end of it. The problem now is that people will say 'I'm offended by that' or 'that's offensive' and think they've made an argument. They haven't.

Is there no line in the sand to be drawn when it comes to freedom of expression? Or is the problem that it is like sand when you get into this territory?

Yes, I think there are a few lines in the sand: defamation, fraud, misleading advertising (surely a tautology), direct incitement to a crime and so on - none of which, properly defined, can be justified by the search for truth. As for freedom of opinion, however, I'm something of an absolutist and resent any effort on the part of the state to control not only what I can and can't say but also, and as importantly, what I can and can't hear. I'm unlikely ever to change my opinion that, say, the Holocaust happened. But I'll be buggered if I'm going to have my opinion turned into dead dogma by legal fiat. If you'll excuse my French.

Postmodernism, political correctness, identity politics, the culture of narcissism - there are a lot of culprits in the dock.

There are, but I think all of them could plead mitigating circumstances. I hope I'm fair, in other words. To take the example of political correctness, I can see where it comes from, and what it's trying to achieve; I just don't think it's the right way to proceed. As for the anti-political correctness of the right, well, that strikes me as dishonest and wilful in a way that political correctness isn't. I trust that point comes through in the book.

I like your comment about needing to keep the heart on fire and the mind on ice. Is there a lot of melted mush in minds today? I think it was CLR James who said that. Or it could have been Lenin. (In either case, I haven't credited him.) There sure is a lot of melted mush in minds today, and the trouble is that it tends to spill out into the public and political sphere. We're sloshing around in it over here [in Australia].

You're a leftist, but you don't spare the left - or the right.

Yes, I'm a leftist - well to the left of the Australian Labor Party, in fact. But no, I certainly don't spare the left, which is in the process of forgetting its universalist roots. Not sparing the right is easy. Most conservative politics isn't really politics at all; it's just self-interest aggravated by prejudice.

What has been the cost to both ends of the political spectrum?

Of the weaponisation of offence and offendedness? I would say the cost has been pretty high, and not just along the political spectrum. As I put it in the book, to proscribe offence is not to build a Jerusalem of mutual respect but to open the door to a Babel of complaint. It's corrosive, that is to say, of genuine civility. It's also deadly to intelligent discourse.

You write that 'argument and articulation are nearly always better than raw emotion', but don't you skirt perilously close to the latter yourself at times, such as when you describe The Circle as 'an unsightly boil, now thankfully lanced, on the arse of Australian daytime television'?

No, that's a statement of fact ... Seriously, though, to say that argument and articulation are always better than raw emotion is not to deplore the role of the zinger or even the occasional ad hominem attack. It is simply to make the point that unless you have a point to make you're wasting everybody's time.

Has Australia taken your book to heart (or mind)? The dropping of a speaker at this year's Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney because his ideas were deemed too dangerous suggests otherwise.

Yes, I wrote about that episode. It was a dumb response to some very dumb marketing. But to your question ... It would have been egotistical of me to think a mere book could turn the tide. But what can you do, except plug away?

Are we simply too far down the path? Is there no pulling back?

Possibly. But I don't like counsels of despair any more than I like counsels of complacency. As I say, you just have to keep making the case.(

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