On Offence: The Politics of Indignation
by Richard King
Published September, 2013
Everyone knows how the First World War began, or believes they do. Gavrilo Princip, Serbian patriot, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and months later the European powers collapsed into chaos. But few are aware of the full absurdity of the event. Princip arrived late for Ferdinand’s turn around the city centre. Dejected at his failure, he did what every Austro-Hungarian would do, and went to a deli. Coming out, still cursing himself, he looks up and sees Franz Ferdinand’s carriage coming round again …
Few wars have begun with such absurdity, but the ‘culture wars’ may well have been one of them. From the 1970s onwards, the 1960s ‘revolution’ having fallen short, feminists, anti-racists and others had gradually transformed the public culture of the West, supplanting the notion of universality and a simple idea of truth attached to a white male perspective. Much of this was courageous and inspiring, some of it was oversimplified and contradictory, and by the mid-1980s the Right was pushing back. The resulting ‘war’ over language, affirmative action, curricula and much more is, as Richard King notes, an argument about speech, power and offence.
The conflict is usually considered to have been sparked by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a supremely idiosyncratic work from 1987. Bloom damned the transformation of American higher education from a search for truth and beauty to an exploration of power and how it is deployed in culture. The Closing of the American Mind is regarded as a first shot in the culture wars because Bloom identified many sillinesses in the rise of new disciplines such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies; it is idiosyncratic because what Bloom saw as a ‘closing’ was really an opening-up of the culture to other voices and perspectives. Curmudgeonly and nostalgic, he saw the years of his own education as a high-point from which the American academy had declined. Subsequent pundits would give the ‘power-based’ approach a name – ‘political correctness’ – and identify its core tactic as a claim of ‘offence’ – that is, the claim that a disagreeable opinion is not merely asinine or wrong-headed, but illegitimate because it attacks the objector’s identity.
Much of the era of PC has faded away, but for King, a West Australian-based reviewer, chiefly for the Australian, ‘offence’ has gone from strength to strength. He argues that the charge has been given extra force by being transferred, not without paradox, from gender and race matters to those of religion and culture, post-9/11. Protected by the official policy of multiculturalism, and given political form by the Rushdie affair, religious groups within Western societies have reserved their right to propagate sexist, chauvinistic and violent ideas, without any demand that they conform their ideas to a minimal set of beliefs that now characterise the modern liberal West. Worse, the Left has been suffused with the cultural relativism coming from its ideas about culture and value. It has thus displayed an unwillingness to assert universal values with regard to matters such as the oppression of women – the continued practice of female genital mutilation as ritual circumcision, for example. King does not let the Right off the hook, arguing that it has used outrage about fictional PC outbreaks – the notorious non-existent banning of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, for example – to propagate its own politics of outrage, much of which travels into the realms of the ludicrous, such as the perpetual ‘war on Christmas’ that American conservatives annually warn about.
The result, King argues, is that we live in a highly distinctive period, in which politics has departed from real politics and become an expression of differential identity. Ever-shriller claims for respect and identity-recognition enthrone cultural relativism as a standard and self-expression as a method. Instead of politics being a push to instantiate universal values, it has become an expression of self. Central to King’s argument is the re-affirmation that all discourse is the search for truth, and that those who insist on notions of offence see speech as being about power. Depart from the quest for truth and eventually everything becomes offensive.
There are a lot of points King makes that one can agree with; or that any leftist from a ‘materialist’ background can. Many of the arguments made during this period were infuriatingly contradictory. The years which saw the rise of what is now known as the ‘cultural left’ were characterised by an insistence that there was no ‘fixed truth’ in matters cultural or political, combined with a rigid and unexamined set of left-liberal values that were held to be unquestionable. But there is something disconcerting about someone who values the eternal truths contained within the literary canon asserting that he lives in a world which has departed from the true path. Surely at some point, such a writer recognises that the myth of a lost golden age and the fall has shaped his perceptions?
This it seems to me is the case with On Offence. King asks:
How did we arrive in this age of rage, this current diss-topia? … I am convinced that it has to do with the personalisation of politics … The degeneration runs beneath and around and into the assorted ideologies and demagogueries dealt with in this book: the controversies over political correctness, multiculturalism and identity politics … the result is not politics in the traditional sense …
The lost world he counterposes is that expressed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. While noting that complaints about exclusion and absence were justified, he declares the total politicisation of English studies, and notes:
intelligent literary critics are not blind to the fact that works of literature reflect the ideological assumptions of the societies in which they have been written. But that is not all they do. They also deal with universal themes such as love and honour, hatred and revenge. And they do so in ways that are so original that they throw us into a new relationship with the world. When that happens we say the work has ‘value’. Sometimes we call its author ‘great’.
Put a society on that basis, King seems to argue, and the notion of offence largely disappears, and people once again begin to debate ideas in the agora, without regard to the origins or standing they bring to the debate.
Taking the second part first, what can one say about such a defence of the absolute value of literary texts? You don’t have to be a proponent of Queer Rainbow Studies to take that as a by now tiresome assertion. The very discipline in which King was educated – English studies – is barely more than a century old. Establishing it within the university system took decades of struggle against a resistance to the teaching of modern poetry and – gasp – novels, alongside the Classics. Those who fought to keep the Classical university curriculum would regard it as bizarre that we have solemnized the teaching of a series of light comedies by Jane Austen, in the same way that mid-century humanist intellectuals would look askance at the interpretive attention lavished on, say, Breaking Bad. A century hence, their successors may see no difference, or much prefer the latter, or they may read and watch things we have barely registered. No text bodies forth its own value, which is quite a different thing from any historical importance. Uncle Tom’s Cabin wins that prize, and it is unreadable. People who find it difficult to imagine an era in which Shakespeare does not enjoy the demigod status he has held for quite a while, might ask themselves how many people today have read Virgil, and what last century’s dons would think of a society that did not have him and other Classical writers at the centre of its literary culture.
Where can we find truth then? King holds that the content of something like Thomas Jefferson’s First Amendment is true, and notes that the critique of it – that Jefferson kept slaves and was hardly in a position to speak about freedom – relies on the power of the amendment itself to criticise such a situation. He remarks that:
slaveholders fell back on the argument that African Americans were only partly human which must have sounded disingenuous, even in the eighteenth century
This is not only flat wrong, but a staggering and convenient obtuseness. It is a way of avoiding a third and more powerful argument that critics of that period have made: that the very notion of attesting to universal humanity and its rights is the cover by which you discount whole categories of people as belonging to the human, satisfied that you have acknowledged them in the wording. King seems unaware that the Constitution which follows the Declaration of Independence listed slaves as counting for ‘three-fifths of a human being’. By the early 1800s, and especially after many of the founders – particularly Jefferson – had been terrified by the Haitian slave revolt of 1803, the cognitive dissonance that made the founding documents simultaneously refer to all people and only white people was firmly in place.
For much of its history – until the 1970s, really – the First Amendment was honoured more in the breach than the observance. As King notes, the rule of thumb as to where the First Amendment ends – ‘yelling fire in a crowded theatre’ – was cited in the jailing of a pacifist for handing out anti-war leaflets in 1919. The insistence made through the high period of identity politics was that a vast number of universal statements and judgements about history, culture and psychology were simply one point of view, usually that of the master. The way in which this was challenged was sometimes acute, sometimes silly and grandstanding, and a lot of it in between. Which is why summarising it all as a period of ‘political correctness’ tends to decide the politics of King’s account before he has fully made his argument. By this point in, or after, the culture wars, we need more interrogative accounts, not received histories. We need versions which tease out the sound attacks on privilege and ideology from the recursive insistence on ‘difference’ that the academy and sections of the culture got caught up in for a decade or so.
Separating out the transformative attacks on the smug certainties of ‘true value’ from the question-begging insistence on ‘difference’ that cannot be reconciled to universal human values would have made for a more variable history of the period. But it would have been a less neat one – one where all assertion of difference and demand for equality and respect is not ‘victimhood’, as King portrays it, and where all expression of identity is not a narcissistic self-celebration. Consider, for example, King’s take on the ‘ribbon’ campaigns – for breast cancer research, against domestic violence, and so forth – which he sees as a prime example of the distorted times we live in. For King, following Sarah Moore, such campaigns are:
about self-presentation, about making the self visible and readable … [they] answer a modern need – a need to be seen to care about things.
To those ways of manifesting in public space is counterposed what? The implicit assumption is that the only legitimate mode of self-expression is, well, Jeffersonian: the content author at his desk, expressing and distributing ideas via the abstract form of writing. By an incredible coincidence, the ideal form of public culture matches the expertise and preferred activity of the author of the very book we are reading.
Quite aside from being unhistorical – campaigns have always relied on symbols and displays to manifest publicly, from the palm-fronds of the medieval pilgrims to the pacifist Primrose League – it presumes that cultures do not change as societies change. Wearing a ribbon against violence in Darfur is a little ridiculous; wearing one as you run for breast cancer funding is as meaningful a way of ‘speaking’ publicly – and no less narcissistic – as writing a finely turned essay for a little magazine.
Clearly there has been a major shift in cultural frameworks and personal identity over the last twenty to thirty years, but this process has as much to do with the remorseless extension of market principles to every part of social and cultural life – something King barely considers – as it does with movement at the purely cultural level. Thus to make everything that has happened as the culture has shifted over the last twenty years a contribution to a culture of offence is to create a simplistic theory which cannot be sustained.
Along the way, we inevitably get a consideration of the Andrew Bolt ‘18C’ case, in which nine Aboriginal people sued him under the ‘insult and offence’ provision of the Racial Discrimination Act for alleging that they had gained advantage by falsely claiming aboriginality – the ‘falseness’ of that claim based on the fact that they were comparatively lighter-skinned than some other Aboriginal people. Bolt lost that case; King mangles it by claiming that, while the judge found that Bolt had played fast and loose with the facts, the judgement against him had been made purely on the basis of what he had said about lighter-skinnedness and aboriginality. No it hadn’t. Justice Bromberg made it clear that section 18C on insult only operated if the defendant’s conduct had been such as to strip him of the protection of section 18D, which protected speech made as fair comment, in good faith. Bolt’s attacks had been so wildly and manifestly incorrect that he was left without the protection of 18D. That was not a detail of the case; it was central to it.
Personally, I am opposed to 18C-like clauses, even when they are mitigated. I think the nine defendants should have launched separate libel cases against Bolt, four or five in a row, at six months intervals, to leave him in losing litigation for three years and reduce him to even more of a gibbering paranoiac than he is now. But that puts a heavy burden on the wronged party, one which 18C was designed to lighten, as a legal form halfway between civil and criminal proceedings. To not convey its complexity is to misrepresent the case as it occurred, and the status quo it represents.
That appears to be part and parcel of King’s bias in this area, some of which is manifested in tics and omissions. Thus a mention of commentator Jeff Sparrow’s remark that ‘Islamophobia today resembles anti-semitism in the 1930s’ sparks a digression into the alleged increase in anti-semitism today, slating Sparrow for not mentioning this explicitly in any discussion of the obsessive and widespread hatred of Muslims after 9/11. King’s reaction is about as PC as you could get, and it is matched by his handling of the Mohammed cartoons affair, in which there is somehow virtually no space to discuss the response by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: a competition for the best Holocaust denial cartoon. The vile but, sadly, sometimes hideously funny entries had Western commentators who had been huffing and puffing about there being no limits to free speech saying that, after all, some things were sacred, which left Ahmadinejad a pretty clear winner. Nor does King touch on, save in the footnotes, the Australian’s campaign against Aboriginal leader Larissa Behrendt (one of the Bolt nine) after she tweeted a very funny, somewhat bad-taste joke about another Aboriginal commentator she didn’t have much time for. This one – all based on ‘offence’ – ran for weeks, and its object was the psychological destruction of Behrendt. Furthermore, the journalist doing much of the leg work was Patricia Karvelas, a former National Union of Students women’s officer, notorious for running meetings in which anglo-celtic women were not allowed to speak until they denounced their own role in maintaining oppressive structures. What more perfect fusion of Left and Right ‘PC’ could there be? What possible reason could King have for consigning this effort by the Australian to the footnotes?
There is no doubt that, as far as public spheres go, we have passed from one era into another. Nor is there anything wrong in saying that we should talk back to the tendencies of any historical period. But a professional writer and opinion-giver can only come to the conclusion that a given era is some sort of gigantic aberration if he fails to reflect on the assumptions he makes in valorising his own role. Central to that is King’s simplistic notion of ‘cultural relativism’, a phrase that became something of a shazam word after 9/11 for anything that detracted from a vaguely equalitarian liberal individualism. In this militant version of liberalism, the arrangements that have obtained in Western societies since the 1970s are taken to be ‘the truth’, and cultures that stand against that have either not yet reached that stage or revelation, or have been drawn away from it by powerful fanatics. Due to the brevity of this book, it is impossible to tell whether King is a ‘hard’ cultural relativist, believing that non-liberal social forms are everywhere ‘wrong’ – and we should do something about them – or the softer version, which suggests that we should simply impose a fairly standard liberalism on the people who come to live amongst us – the failure to do so being held as the main failing of the policy of multiculturalism applied to Western societies since the late 1960s.
Once again, this account has a sufficiently plausible version of the history and an argument that doesn’t make sense. There was a naive multiculturalism, originating from the naive third-worldism of the 1960s counterculture, that persisted into the 1990s. Taking the valuable point that we could re-learn some things from non-Western cultures about intimacy, immediacy, and so on, it was willing to ignore the way that some features of those cultures contradicted the socially liberatory program of the Left. But by the 1990s, that tendency was on the wane, and we have come to a tougher notion of the limits of cultural observation within a modern society. King quotes Germaine Greer’s now notorious remarks about female genital mutilation on Q & A, implying that the practice is no worse than a tattoo. But it is a measure of how rare such sentiments have become that almost no one agreed with her. Greer’s dismissal of the practice was irritating, but King ignores the other point she was arguing: that abhorrence of such practices can be used to license liberal ‘humanitarian’ interventions – namely, that we should go and bomb Sudan until they stop carving up girls.
That much is easy, as is the commitment to a loose liberal framework. There is no other social-political form we can have but a liberal, autonomous one – and no one has ever proposed that ethnic groups be separate from the law. The tough questions come with the sub-cultural frameworks that exist in social life, particularly with regard to the raising and educating of children. Should Christians be able to start schools that teach creation science as true? Should orthodox Jews be allowed to manage their divorces through ‘Beth Din’ courts, even when matters of custody arise? Should Muslim parents be permitted to impose covering and veiling on their children? If you commit to a pluralist society with parental autonomy, you have no option but to err on the side of such practices. Should you impose a more assertively liberal-individualist stance, you are simply imposing one culture – an abstract one – on concrete and traditional practices. In either case, you cannot help but come to a position that is ‘cultural relativist’ at its root. There is neither meaning nor ethical practice except through a cultural framework. Naive liberal modernism simply obscures its own assumptions in a manner more suited to our current era than do concrete cultures, such as religions.
It cannot escape notice that, by King’s telling, things really start to go screwy when a much wider range of people get access not merely to politics, but to the political self-expression that was hitherto the preserve of the author. King is emphatically not one of those Roger Kimball hell-in-a-handbasket types who believe that a social history course on women in the nineteenth century represents the end of civilisation. But his sometimes acute analysis of particular deployments of notions of offence – which is, after all, a rhetorical strategy, an expression of free speech – treats them as akin to an act of state censorship, a charge the Right relies on almost obsessively. Ultimately, that consigns his argument to a nostalgia for something imagined.
This is borne out by the style which, though for the most part serviceable, often becomes affected and fuddy-duddy. Thus the television show The Circle is ‘an unsightly boil, now thankfully lanced’; internet criticism is ‘incontinent blasts from Cassandras’; and my favourite:
it behoves the intellectual competitor to train in the Gym of the Taken-For-Granted before taking to the Stadium of Finer Points where the immortal Garland … is competed for.
Christ on a bike. This is prose that reads like Arthur Schlesinger dresses: bow-tied, horn-rimmed, pipe in hand, talking to Mary McCarthy about Quemoy and Matsu. It is, well, god knows, a mid-century rendition of an Edwardian diction, far as. And it proves the point about authors who condemn wilder forms of political expression, because it is just as self-regarding, in a manner otherwise condemned when it occurs among reality television stars, ribbon-wearers, and the like. It is a language nostalgic for a time when political discourse was the domain of the professionals and there weren’t all these fucking people starting blogs and yelling at you because you failed to factor into your account the experience of subaltern trans sex-workers. Like it or not, the means of opinion production have been generalised somewhat, as have the deepest structures of subjectivity.
There are a lot of King’s observations that one can agree with, targeted at both Left and Right, but the overall argument seems like the last shot in the war, rather than the truth and reconciliation commission. There is plenty to say about how we speak and act, but analysing that accurately means unpacking notions received from the last twenty years, not sealing them up into a just-so story. We have long since consigned the myth that a lone assassin started the greatest conflagration of the twentieth century – which most might suggest gives the PC era a run for its money, as far as ‘time out of joint’ goes. What is needed for the corresponding period at the end of the twentieth century is more of the various forces that led us to the present, rather than going round the old city one more time.