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“Giving offence is good”

Bravo Brendan.

Over the years I have gone from being deeply sceptical of Brendan O’Neill, into finding myself rarely disagreeing with him.

36 comments to “Giving offence is good”

  • Laird

    I don’t know who Brendan O’Neill is, but I very much like this speech. We not only have a right to “offend” against the stultifying orthodoxies of the day, we have a duty to do so. I agree, which is why I choose to use the gravatar that I do; my intent is to offend.

  • Russtovich

    “I don’t know who Brendan O’Neill is, but I very much like this speech.”

    See Spiked Online:


    They also do podcasts:



  • llamas

    What was the debate outcome?

    Regardless of his excellent argument, I don’t think much will change, least of all minds. After some 200 years of enlightenment and progress in the UK, the ability to silence someone all the way to a prison cell simply for saying something that another finds ‘offensive’ has been written back into black-letter law, and the Social Justice Worriers are going to use it and never let it go. The Brits have never really ‘got’ free speech, and because they got increasingly squishy about it, they’ve now lost it entirely.

    It would be well to bear in mind that some of the things Mr O’Neill said at the bar of the Oxford Union were quite offensive enough that someone could use them as the basis for a criminal complaint, and, if past evidence is anything to go by, he could well find himself up on criminal charges. Thus proving his own point. And a large number of Brits would be just fine with that.



  • Paul Marks


  • nemesis

    Whole debate here: http://www.organizingcreativity.com/2015/08/oxford-union-societys-freedom-of-speech-and-right-to-offend-debate/
    Peter Hitchens also speaks well. I know he does not have many fans here but he is undoubtedly an excellent debater.
    The indignation of Kate Brooks (whoever she is) speaking for the opposition is a hoot.

  • Thailover

    Since man’s greatness is the product of his or her mind, I’ve always thought that we have a duty to inspire non-orthodox thought in support of these values, and so we should ask people to occationally think about ideas, even if the find them “offensive”. Its despotic and controlling to frame “your” crime by MY emotional response, (“offense”), especially when NO CONSIDERATION is EVER given to how irrational and uncalled for that emotional response is. Me even sharing an elevator with Rebecca Watson would no doubt make her uncomfortable as she’s convinced that America is a “rape culture”. But that doesn’t make “evevator-gate” a sensible controversy. And it doesn’t make Richard Dawkins a “rape appologist” because he called her on her bullshit.

  • Thailover

    LLamas asked “What was the debate outcome?”

    It doesn’t matter. The purpose for “debate” is to get opposing ideas ‘out there’. Who does the better job at rhetoric (or sophestry) or which idea proves more popular in the end is insignificant, even tangential IMO.

  • Thailover

    Peter Hitchens is alwasy hamstringed when he tries to defend or even promote christianity, but it’s not his fault. The subject is pre-spoiled. If one honestly evaluated the espoused values of gospel Jesus, most modern christians would find them deeply offensive. So we even have atheists profering the idea that Jesus was a great guy and profound philosopher.

  • Thailover

    I love how these big mouth feminists think that free speech includes the entitlement to disrupt a man’s monologue when he rightfully has the floor. Anyone who doesn’t know that feminists and other “shout them down” leftists on university or college campuses confuse free speech with the quashing of free speech, hasn’t been to a college campus in 50yrs.

  • Tedd

    While completely supporting the right of free speech, I have in the past tended to come down on the side of inoffensiveness as simple good manners. But I like how O’Neill has framed his argument. Once offensiveness itself is stated as the reason for censoring speech then offensiveness becomes, if not a duty, certainly a crucial expression of what is right. Like Rosa Parks on the bus.

  • JohnW

    Well this is perfect – Ruvi Ziegler, who opposes free speech, is an advocate for non-objective law!
    Ayn Rand described non-objective law in Atlas Shrugged as “humanity’s darkest evil” and in interview after interview said it would not be proper or necessary to “go Galt” unless a dictatorship banned free speech because after that point it would be impossible to fight a battle of ideas within society.

  • Julie near Chicago

    nemesis, Thanks very much for the link. I watched all the presentations, and in a way I suppose Ms. Brooks’s was most impressive. I mean it’s not as if you could sleep through it (although props to Mr. Hitchens for the mime), and it’s not as if it doesn’t bring on a sick headache instanter.

    I had some problems with Mr. O’Neill’s presentation, frankly. But I thought Mr. Hitchens was rather good, and unlike the person who posted the videos and the excellent commentary, I thought Miss Charabarti’s presentation was perhaps the most successful one. I appreciated her rejection of the O’Neill “duty” thesis. Correct: A “right” is not a duty. I appreciated that she dragged in the reality that the “free speech” issue is an issue about what is and isn’t LEGALLY prohibited. I liked that she brought the real world into it with her observation that with the banning of whatever movie it was, India gave up free speech. I appreciated her reminder that the “right of free speech” has been bought at the price of the “courage and the blood” of so many British (in this case) long since…and that our freedom is the result and the reason why we must insist on the right of free speech.

    The opposition did have one valid point: Speech [like ideas] can have consequences, not always good and sometimes forseeable. Nobody presented an actual argument from this, however.

    The “anti-” team were way out of their depth and should probably be left to drown. :>)

  • I have no time for Charabarti to be honest, a statist imitation of a libertarian, someone who thinks (European) courts are how rights can be meaningfully protected.

    The reason is O’Neill is correct is that law follows where culture leads as sure as night follows day, particularly somewhere with a common law tradition such as England. If we do not demonstrate our right to offend, we will have lost it. Much like right-of-way, if you do not use it, you lose it. A right not exercised is soon a right lost.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes, Perry,”use it or lose it”: Quite. As I too have pointed out, here and there about the World-Wide Web.

    Or, you might care to peruse the series of 6 postings I committed at CCiZ in re Pamela Geller’s “Draw Mohammed” event in Garland, Texas last March — the point of which was precisely to “use it.”

    (Eugene Volokh gave a very good explanation of why the event was valuable in the very fact of its being “provocative,” by the way. The video is posted in Part 4 or Part 5 of that series, I think.)

    However, the specific point at issue is whether speech (or, actually, other expression, if we’re dragging burkhas into it) should be illegal if it is “offensive,” that is, if someone is offended by it. It is specifically an issue about what the law should be.

    Actually, framing it as “Is there a right to offend?” is a red herring. The real question is, “What if any are the limitations the law should put on what a person may say or do; and should what is legally allowable in private be also legally allowable in public?”

    If the answer is that no speech or other form of self-expression should be prohibited unless it is physically aggressive, then “offensive” speech cannot be illegal simply because it’s not physically aggressive. (Neither can any other speech, except possibly deceitful speech: Speech intended to defraud.)

    It’s not that I have “a right” to offend you; it’s that I have a right to speak as I please, and that it offends you is merely a consequence of my speaking as I please, as is my right.

  • Actually, framing it as “Is there a right to offend?” is a red herring. The real question is, “What if any are the limitations the law should put on what a person may say or do; and should what is legally allowable in private be also legally allowable in public?”

    No I think you are mistaken. The reason is that in the English tradition, you are free to do what is not prohibited by law by default, but under (most) European legal traditions, rights are laid out and there is less (or no) presumption you have rights to do what is not stated. Negative legislation such as “Congress shall make no law…” is very much an American thing.

    And sadly the UK is part of Europe and increasingly influenced by European laws and customs. That is why it is not enough to say “we have the right to do this because there is no law saying we cannot”. As a practical matter you must not just use a controversial right, you must get in people’s faces and make it clear it is indeed your RIGHT, and establish that repeatedly, or you are just one law away from it not being your right.

    There is no First Amendment in the UK.

  • Thailover

    Perry, indeed. You are quite correct.

    Compare America’s 9th amendment to the US Constitution to the UN Covenant on…rights.

    9th Amendment:
    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
    (In other words one has rights by default, even if they’re not enumerated in this document).

    Article 4 of the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, & Cultural rights:
    The State parties to the present Covenant recognize that, in the enjoyment of those rights provided by the state…the state may subject such rights only to such limitations as are determined by law.

    The American version is in regard to inalienable rights. But what the UN calls “rights” are literally permissions. They seem to be under the illusion that the state can grant rights, but they’re wrong. That which can be arbitrarily granted by the state can be just as arbitrarily revoked by the state, which defied the very meaning of a right. Rights are not permissions.

  • Thailover

    Julie said, “I thought Miss Charabarti’s presentation was perhaps the most successful one.”

    Hmmm, interesting. I found her speech particularly lacking and weak. First there’s the contradiction of the position that sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc are not relevant factors for discrimination, and then we turn around and say, wow, girls in honored position on the debate team. Wow, international women’s day. That’s borderline hypocritical.

    Personally, I consider the implied need for the powers that be composed of the social enlightened to grant “empowerment” or an observance “day” or “month” to be akin to a participation trophy proffered by the social engineers, (“good for the self esteem you know”).

    Then she slammed O’Neill for saying one has a “duty” to be offensive, meaning in this context of course to be true to one’s principles in situations where the mere existence of a push-back to orthodoxy is deemed de-facto “offensive”. Then she makes EXACTLY the same argument in deference to politeness, i.e. to be true to ones principles in one’s actions. Again, a nonsense argument when one considers the context. O’Neill wasn’t saying that one has a duty to be a boorish ass 24/7. And….sorry, politeness v tyranny will end with you in tyranny every time.

  • Thailover

    “Peter Hitchens”

    It’s time like these when the very palpable and yes even painful vaccume left by the absense of Christoper is deeply felt. May he rest in peace.

  • Thailover

    Julie, what did you think of Mr. Squirrell’s contribution? I can’t think of a time I’ve seen a more pathetic, sniveling crybaby. Not only was his main thrust irrational and pathetic, (that it’s fine to quash free speech if the “offender” is “privileged” rather than “unprivileged”) but I was also literally waiting for this seething lump to start stamping his feet and cry.

  • Thailover

    Nemesis wrote: “The indignation of Kate Brooks (whoever she is) speaking for the opposition is a hoot.”

    Watching this histrionic, sexist, racist shrieking cow defeat herself with her own self contradictory sophistry, and watching the room burst in unified applause and shouts against her when a soft-spoken Asian woman pointed out her ludicrous fallacies in a single question, was something I can only describe as completely delicious.

  • JohnW

    Squirrell and Brooks are insignificant. Ziegler was the most evil individual present – and the one with the greatest political power.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Perry, above at 12:54 a.m.:

    Thanks for making that point. Nevertheless, even if I am mistaken I’m right *g* — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I freely admit that it’s hard for me to see the British idea of “rights” as being overridden in any meaningful way by the oppressions of the EU, so I may be misunderstanding the present political context.

    Unfortunately, our own Ninth Amendment is currently invisible, the Tenth being the one getting at least some attention. Only a few of us redneck backwoods hillbillies from Northern Illinois seem to know it exists (for instance, see Randy Barnett, Georgeown Univ. Law Center 2006,“The Ninth Amendment: It Means What It Says,”38 pp., downloadable pdf.)

    Thailover, I’m compelled to say I cannot improve upon your assessment of the Squirrel. :>)

    As to my distinctly-minority opinion in re Miss Chakrabarti, I guess we’ll have to disagree. I didn’t hear her calling for government to be involved, for instance; I understood her as saying, in effect if not in so many words (although she may have — I forget), that government, that is, the legal system, should not be involved in deciding what is or isn’t acceptable speech. I did hear her say that “India,” meaning, I assume, the Indian government, gave up on freedom when it interfered with free speech by banning the movie.

    As for noting the increasing acceptance of women in areas formerly closed to women, I understood her not to be cheering for such “anti-discrimination” laws as may have helped (or hindered) it, but rather to be noting the fact of such acceptance, and saying or at least implying that the Feminists’ yowlings aren’t applicable to the modern situation, if they ever were. (Or, to be vulgar about it, “You’ve come a long way, baby, so shut up and quit trying to maintain the Victim pose and denying freedom of speech to other people.”)

    Remember also that she directly followed the bag who had been engaging in just such Feminist and “anti-discrimination” Victim-group yowling for roughly 8 minutes.

    As for O’Neill, yes yes, fine, full of fire, some assertions that we libertarians can hardly disagree with, but mere assertions for all that; it struck me as being pretty fiskable. As for “it was pretty clear from context” about its being a “duty” to exercise the “right,” I’m afraid that is a bridge way way way too far. It might be silly or short-sighted or even cowardly not to exercise the right, but to take the positive action of poking your enemy with a stick is not a duty, however much contempt one might have for those who fail to poke.

    (A duty is something incumbent upon you whether or not you think so. The concept gets us into ancient, turbulent philosophical waters full of wrecked ships at the bottom. Some people talk about the libertarian theory of property rights as constituting a positive duty of non-owners to desist from attacking the owners or the property with force or fraud or extortion, but that is a questionable borrowing of the idea.)

    Two things about the Brooks-Bag. One, I kept waiting for the stage-manager’s cane to emerge from the wings and hook her off the stage. *g* The other was that the questions and remarks from the audience were so soft that I couldn’t hear them. Bummer.

  • Julie near Chicago

    JohnW, I’m not so sure I disagree with you. I really did not like the vibe, but I found the presentation so droningly boring that I somewhat spaced out during it.

    By the way, I’ve never heard of any of these people except columnists O’Neill and Hitchens.

    So, Ziegler has political power?

  • JohnW

    He specializes in promoting “the darkest evil” – non-objective law.
    Human Rights Law, Public International Law, International Humanitarian Law, Administrative Law, Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Law, Comparative Constitutional Law, and Democratic Theory – i.e. the very systems of law which this country once opposed.
    His contempt for the US is no accident.

  • JohnW

    Julie, I agree with you concerning “duty” – it’s a loaded term with an appalling history of which most people are unaware but if you take his appeal to “duty” as meaning ” today, if you love freedom, then you cannot escape the necessity of having to fight for it” he is probably closer the truth than you or I would care to admit!

    As for Chakrabati – she has too much “previous” to merit any approval this side of the pond.

  • Julie near Chicago


    First, thanks for the hint about Ms. Chakrabarti. It is difficult when listening to someone whose baggage one dislikes, to forget the baggage and concentrate on the current message. And there is always a perfectly legitimate question as to how the current message should be understood, given the baggage. For those of us who don’t know anything about the players, there are fewer preconceptions, so the present statements are all we have to go on. And, in principle, in this sort of debate that should be main thing to which we do pay attention. (That’s not the case when one is listening to a debate where decisions rest in part on the participants’ statements and their credibility, as in our Presidential debates.)

    With Mr. O’Neill, all I can say is that while I certainly agree with what you think he meant, I can only say that if that’s what he meant then that’s what he should have said. One cannot expect other people to “take me for what I mean, not for what I say.” (Although in other contexts one is sometimes well-advised to examine the other guy’s words to try to tease out whether he did mean what he said, or something else.)

    And we in the audience should sharply distinguish between a pundit or a politician actually says and what we would like to believe he means by what he says. Settling for the latter is exactly why The People (Brits, Americans, anybody in some sort of reasonably functional democracy) end up with so many kleptocrats, thugs, and Little Dictators in powerful posts.

    And, of course, public debates of this sort are partly theater, and if we are interested in the constestants’ ideas as well as in the show, we need to award marks for content, for clarity, for logic, for knowledge of whatever is pertinent (such as history); as well as for charm, style, “charisma,” (none of them very charismatic, IMO), showmanship.

    . . .

    I have just been watching a 1999 debate between the Hitchens Brothers on the topic, “Is Britain in Moral Decline?” Probably you all have seen it. Very interesting. The issue is whether joining the EU is a good thing for Britain:


    I can answer that question immediately and in one short word. “Hell no!” 😉

  • […] suitably, following the link to a speech by Brendan O’Neill earlier on Samizdata, is this long, very troubling and hopefully widely-read item on the Atlantic […]

  • Thailover

    JohnW wrote:

    “Squirrell and Brooks are insignificant. Ziegler was the most evil individual present – and the one with the greatest political power.”

    After watching the opposition’s first two, I didn’t bother watch the third as I figured it isn’t worth my time even for entertainment purposes. Out of curiosity I might just do that. I don’t know anything about O’Neill, but if he does call M-F transsexuals by a “non-preferred pronoun”, I’m wondering if he does that to make a point that it is indeed a courtesy and not an obligation, or if he’s merely being a complete dick just to be a dick. My argument would be that a pronoun addresses the person, not an appendage.

  • Thailover

    Julie wrote: “A duty is something incumbent upon you whether or not you think so.”

    Indeed. Ayn Rand wrote, “The meaning of the term “duty” is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest. It is obvious that that anti-concept is a product of mysticism, not an abstraction derived from reality.”

    I think O’Neill though was talking about one’s “duty” to remain true to one’s own held values rather than someone else’s. Duty probably isn’t the correct word in that context.


  • JohnW

    “Deontological ethics” is the proper name for duty-based ethics [and it’s all bad!] but as O’Neill is clearly on the side of the angels I’m prepared to cut him some slack for a poor choice of words.

    @Julie, Hitch was a total ignoramus about philosophy, economics, and law – he was lazy and unlearned and his act was all show and no substance, a weakness thoroughly exposed by George Galloway – I couldn’t stand the lightweight creep.
    As for the EU – it is obviously a Platonist nightmare totally at odds with the UK’s long, Aristotelian history.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Well, Perry is so offended by commies and fascists, he wants them dead.

    We not only have a right to “offend” against the stultifying orthodoxies of the day, we have a duty to do so.

    If liberty becomes the orthodoxy of the day (no that it ever did!), should the communitarians and the authoritarians be allowed to speak up, or be silenced for the obviously wrong-thinking they indulge in?

  • Nicholas (Rule Yourselves!) Gray

    They should certainly be allowed to clamour for ‘the good old days’, the same as anyone else. We would need to keep pointing out the benefits of a freer economy.

  • gongcult

    If liberty becomes the “orthodoxy of the day” communitarians’, interventionists and authoritarians will be most welcome to spout their pieces because the free interplay of ideas will allow their ideas to be seen as they really are. Not like today where rational argument and empiricism are hindered by the idea of not offending or challenging anyone. ..

  • Julie near Chicago

    In the interest of thoroughness, not to mention such outmoded values as clarity and intellectual honesty (yes, a SNARK, but not aimed at Samizdata or its writers and commenters)….

    Yes, anyway. I do stand by the meaning or notion (or “floating abstraction”) of “duty” as given above by me and others, where “duty” is unqualified.

    Nevertheless, there are such common usages as “I have a duty to myself to …,” or “But I see this as a duty to my principles ….” In such cases it is clear why the speaker feels he has a duty, and the implication certainly is freely chosen (or compelled by the speaker’s own logic).

    [Omitted: thick tracts on the topic of “Duty as a tenet in Christianity” or some such title.]

    What is abhorrent most of all is the idea there There Is some sort of Thing out there in the Universe, that we call Duty, which isn’t about survival or happiness or flourishing nor even the “joys” of nihilism or Nirvana. Something completely unrelated to the human condition. Something that visits absolute “oughts” and “shoulds” upon us in a way that is forever incomprehensible.

    And that we disobey at the cost of our immortal souls. (Don’t get all excited, guys. This has nothing at all to do with reasonably mainstream Christianity. It’s really more of a Pagan idea, for some value of “Pagan,” if you ask me.)

    It seems to me that this is the conception of “oughtness” that Hume had in mind. But I confess that I’m barely conversant with Hume–only the first part of that essay with “you can’t get ‘ought’ from ‘is.'” That’s correct if, and only if, you have some sort of conception of an Absolute Ought that is beyond all authority…even the authority of God. (It is my duty to do this because God says so” might be lame, but it is not incomprehensible. It does follow more-or-less logically from some conceptions of God.) It is this absolute ‘Ought’ that is synonymous with my conception of Duty (but noting the non-absolute usages above, which are NOT “absolute” in the sense of Absolute).

    Whereas sensible folk know that an “ought” not derivable from “is” is non-sense. As the dictionary* reminds us, “ought” implies some end in view, or some criterion of acceptability or applicability — “You ought to make the skirt a little longer.” — or else something one would expect in the circumstances. “If I’ve followed the pattern, this dress ought to fit.”

    Or, of course, “I said I would, so I ought to do it.”

    (All of those flow from the original derivation of “ought” from the verb “to owe.”)
    . . .

    *Merriam-Webster online, for a change. In this case, Webster’s Combined 1913 too narrow for modern usage. OED hopeless, and has been for a year or so by now, IIRC.

  • TomJ

    I take it that Comrade O’Neill’s jacket was a concrete expression of the thesis he was expounding…