I Find That Offensive

Christopher Owens with a review of a book that advocates free speech.

‘I Find That Offensive!’

Short books are vastly underrated.

A really great novel packs more of a punch in 200 odd pages than in 1000.

I Find that Offensive
is one in a series of books from Biteback Publishing which come under the umbrella name of 'Provocations.' In this series, we've read the likes of Kevin Meagher argue that a United Ireland is inevitable, John Sutherland discussing the wars on young and old people, and even prime time scumbag Kelvin McKenzie articulating his enthusiasm on immigration.

And with them all being around the 200 page mark, there is enough in there to facilitate an argument while also being light enough to dip in and out of when needed.

With the recent conviction of YouTuber (and attention seeker) "Count Dankula" for making a video of a pug making a Nazi salute while he uses the phrase "gas the Jews," and the PSNI investigating Ellie Evans for holding a placard saying "Fuck the DUP", revisiting this book is a grim reminder of what we now face.

A former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Claire Fox has been a known figure in the media for quite a while with columns in the Times, being a panellist on Radio 4's The Moral Maze and appearing on Newsnight. Very much a fervent supporter of freedom of speech and the necessity for debate, this book should be a starting point for today's people.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite hit the revolutionary zeal. But it gives it a good go.

She begins by discussing a talk she gave in a classroom made up of "90 per cent Muslim students" post Charlie Hebdo, in which she managed to offend students by not referring to Mohammed as the Prophet. She notes that "One young woman, her voice quivering explained that...seeing something like the Hebdo cartoons were...like being physically assaulted..." Quite a strong statement, I'm sure you'll agree.

Linking it with another school discussion she had centred around Ched Evans (then convicted of rape but subsequently found not guilty on retrial), Fox describes how her defence of due process, rehabilitation and (quoting Germaine Greer) informing these pupils that rape was not necessarily the worst thing that could happen to someone was the cue for inevitable outrage: "Girls were hugging each other for comfort...I was told that I was dangerous, irresponsible and offensive."

Of course, we know that teenagers are prone to melodrama and exaggeration. But Fox felt this was different: both sets of kids genuinely believed that such views are unacceptable and didn't want to hear them. This wasn't someone opting out of an argument, this was two groups of school kids demanding that the conversation be shut down.

It's both childish and disturbing, and it's filtered into everyday life. Fox reports it with an air of resignation and genuine bewilderment, even while trying to be sympathetic. This is the main problem of the book: trying to express an understanding tone when the words on the page don't match this.

Split into three parts, the first one sets the scene by looking into various examples in recent UK-US history of "offensiveness." Ranging from the stupid (clapping being banned because it could "retraumatise" people) to the insidious (the reaction to Erika Christaki's email about Halloween costumes), it's an infuriating read and the ever-growing list of absurdities makes it reminiscent of Monty Python recreating Kafka.

Interestingly, and this has been mentioned by other reviewers, when discussing the shameful episode where supposed "feminists" lashed out at Pretenders front woman Chrissie Hynde for her comments suggesting that the rape she suffered was partly her own fault, Fox uses the word "culpability" in relation to Hynde's actions.

Now, since Hynde is on record as saying she feels a certain amount of responsibility, the use of the word is legitimate in this context. However, earlier in the book, Fox castigates the people who felt the Charlie Hebdo staff were, in effect "asking for it." While that is understandable, there is a problem here. Surely, by publishing cartoons that some would consider blasphemous, there was always a chance that people who hold fanatical views about a religion would get wound up enough to attack the magazine? Does that make it right? Not at all. But it is a risk.

And this is where the concept of free speech can become tricky. I am of the opinion that people are perfectly entitled to say what they want. However, that does not mean there are no consequences. Someone might lash at you verbally or physically. Are they right to physically attack you for something you've said? No, because that is a form of shutting down debate. However, it is a fact of life that it can happen and is one of the risks you take when voicing opinions.

Of course, I'm aware that the format of the book will give rise to limitations in areas that could be discussed more thoroughly in a larger tome. However, it would have been less disingenuous of her to at least acknowledge that there are wider issues also up for debate, but that they remain outside the scope of I Find that Offensive.

Part two is a look at why teenagers and young adults hold such views. Somewhat predictably, Fox lays the blame at everyone from parents not letting their kids get scraped knees while playing, governmental health and safety issues (the fight against obesity, endless anti-bullying campaigns), schools for removing texts that could be considered "problematic" and universities for being so money driven, that students now call the shots by being customers of the university. And what business wants to lose customers? So they indulge students.

While there is undoubtedly an element of truth in all of this, it comes across as a bit "it were all green fields around here when I were a lass." Children have been mollycoddled by parents since the dawn of time, and anti bullying initiatives can actually be a good thing. Of course, the overabundance of policies (including "deliberately excluding others") may render the initiatives impotent (which is probably the point Fox is making) but maybe an extra run through Microsoft Word would have smoothed out the exasperation which can irritate.

Ending with two letters (one addressed to the "snowflakes" and the other to free speech advocates) is a succinct way of summing up her views. Unfortunately, the first letter is riddled with smugness and arrogance and is highly unlikely to win over anyone. However, the second one is genuinely motivating for free speech enthusiasts. Imploring them not to resort to shock tactics, she emphasises the need for conversation and allowing others to use their voice.

Overall, for a 200 odd page book, there's enough in here to pique the curiosity of someone who feels frustrated and worried by recent developments but is hamstrung by its hectoring tone, questionable attitude towards certain events and general "PC gone mad" rant of modern culture. But through it all is a clear desire to protect and defend the right of the individual to speak their mind, and that is rare in this day and age.

Footnote: I asked the people behind the #FuckTheDUP page if they wanted to comment on the case of "Count Dankula" and what that meant for freedom of speech. They did not respond to my query.

Claire Fox, 2016. I Find that Offensive. Biteback Publishing 2016 ISBN-13: 978-1849549813

Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212


  1. Typical that in the U.K., MP’s in Parliament are the only ones who can say what they wish to freely and without penalty but they cannot trust us with it.

    However, are they they understanding of a deeper truth that we are yet to learn? It seems we are no longer capable of accessing the benefits that flow from free expression,thus we net only its ill effects. For example,it seems political debate is increasingly held in bad faith on any topic of real substance and vitality, without even the pretence of wanting understanding the other, without the humility to accept we can learn from even “enemies”. (This is of course when the actual event isn’t cancelled due to threats of violence prior)

    The criteria for who is allowed to speak is nebulous and often contradictory, as is to be expected when everything defers to ones subjective feelings instead of their argument. In this aspect, we needn’t worry for long Christopher, there is a growing number of new people amongst us , who do have a clear idea of the allowed parameters, and can defer to millennia of practice, and who are quite generous in explaining this to those who have questions. At the end of every one of those debates, there will be no confusion.

  2. DaithiD,

    very true observations. Basically, I think it comes down to the left (or, in this case, the "liberal" left) winning the culture war at the end of the eighties. And a lot of complacency has now set in. Hence the inability of some of them to see an alternative point of view.

    I do genuinely hope there are more and more people now becoming aware of the threat to freedom of speech. The fact that a court was able to convict someone, and say that context is irrelevant, is deeply disturbing to me.

  3. Christopher, you could probably time it to when States moved from outright ownership of industries to control through legislation. Where as before the threat to business came from unionised labour, now it comes from free thinkers. Formerly fascistic groups were the razor in the Establishments hand, now it is “anti-Nazi’s” policing the current risk area of expression. As skeptical as we should be of neat explanations that suit ourselves, any reference to the restrictions on speech we currently experience has to include the change in ownership dynamic to fully explain what is gone on.

    I find it hard to get enthused with free speech as an ideal when I know more powerful enemies will use it to subvert everything else of value.

  4. DaithiD,

    in regard to the last comment, yes anyone can use free speech to twist viewpoints (look at the likes of Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins) but the onus is on the likes of us to stand up and contradict these viewpoints. Free speech gave us the Belfast Project, and look what we've learnt from it (especially that those in power really don't like it when they're unable to control the main narrative).

  5. Another good review. I was at Claire's wedding many years ago in Belfast. She does fine work in this area. I agree with Christopher that even bigots like Robinson should not be censored. It is not merely an attack on the right to speak but also on the right to hear. WTF are the censors to tell us what we can and can't hear and then decide on our own response on what we have heard rather than on their filtered version of what they censored?

  6. AM,

    didn't know that you knew Claire! What a coincidence.

    Yes, the notion of someone (or a group of people) trying to censor what is spoken or written, either because they don't like it or because they "decide" it's dangerous, is something I find repugnant. It's like these people feel that the population is a monolithic blob that all feel the same way about everything, and they think that, by exposing people to views they don't approve of, this fragile blob will instantly start parroting these views.

    Which is rather insulting when you think about it, the overall message being "you're not capable of thinking for yourself."

  7. Christopher , what specifically has Tommy Robinson twisted? Show me the appropriate level of thinking, I am genuinely interested.


  8. DaithiD,

    I would argue that his fudging of his membership of the BNP would constitute 'twisting.' I am, of course, aware that around that time the BNP were attempting to moderate their image, but I highly doubt that he genuinely did not know that non whites couldn't join. Robinson is only a few years older than me, and yet I vividly recall seeing reports like this as a child: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SCFQz3EOeQ

  9. Christopher, Ireland will need a Tom MacRóibín. When 50 guys in one house are queuing on the stairs for their turn on some drugged up Irish girl,and this is a daily occurrence ignored by the police, local government and media. We wont ask what the previous mistakes were of those who try to stop it are. Only people like that are willing to take the risk of saving others, despite knowing what is in store for them.
    I noted the localised incidents in Limerick (*). Its coming for Ireland,it takes no precognitive ability to understand this, there are few places left it hasn't. It will center on the taxi ranks, and fast food places.

    (*) Though it seems the contemporaneous news reports are getting wiped from the Web

  10. Ps that was a good example Christopher, I was expecting something more typical. He has tried to explain this , but even that didn’t make sense (he said he went with black friends who were turned away so he didn’t enter upon hearing its membership policy, but that doesn’t explain his picture in a meeting).As Douglas Murray remarks about right wingers with “histories” on the continent , we must allow their former members the chance to moderate, as far left advocates have been able to renounce their previous extremes. The BNP had some awful leaflets about the Republican Movement, I have no goodwill towards them (do they even exist now?)