The Sunday Times Column: In defence of the right to be offended


Are people more easily offended now, or just more vocal about it? Either way, we’re more concerned about causing offence than we’ve ever been. Accompanying universal wails of, “I’m offended”, there’s a new social etiquette obsessed with pandering to such sensitivities, an enforced politeness intent on turning the whole world into a “safe space”.

Just take the latest issue of The Good Schools Guide. It warns parents not to boast about their children’s exam results on Facebook, for fear that kids who have done less well will be upset. Or what about guidelines for office life that warn staff against such obscene acts as warming up sausage rolls in communal microwaves, in case people of different religions are affronted?

The Oxford University Press warns writers not to mention pork or pigs in schoolbooks to “avoid offending Muslims or Jews”. Meanwhile, campuses zealously ban speakers whose ideas might trouble students.

The main argument against such censorship is one favouring free speech, which I support. But there is another issue: I want to defend being offended, because being offended can be good for us.

I love being offended. It doesn’t happen often, but, oh, when it does! That guttural shock. The rising bile in my stomach. It’s exhilarating. Doesn’t everyone, secretly, enjoy being offended just a bit? We relish the shared sense of outrage so much so that content designed to anger people is the most likely to go viral online.

In the short term, learning to handle offence, rather than avoid it, can reap rewards. It makes us resilient and adept at coping when things don’t go our way. This approach is embraced by a new American self-help book, F*** Feelings, which suggests we should welcome anger rather than dodge it. After all, life is filled with hurt and negative feelings. Why try to avoid them? In the long term, there are other reasons to embrace offence, too.

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