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Book Review: On Offence: The Politics of Indignation, by Richard King

People’s readiness to take offence is part of a growing culture of intolerance.

Richard King’s On Offence: The Politics of Indignation is very timely. King argues that all around the world more and more people are claiming it is their right to not have others offend them, and governments and other institutions are bowing to their demands. As I read his book, I reflected on a local example in which an activist was sacked from David Cunliffe’s campaign team because some people were offended she had said it would be naive to imagine there would be no resistance to a gay prime minister. The truth was no defence, and she was sacked to appease those who were offended.

Pakistani Islamists burn an effigy of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who set fire to the Koran. Photo/Getty Images


The book starts with the controversy over Terry Jones, who in 2010 announced his intention to burn the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack. This resulted in the previously unknown US pastor making global headlines as everyone from President Barack Obama down pleaded with him not to commit such an offensive act, implying he would be responsible for hundreds of deaths if he proceeded. They neglected to consider there is no such thing as a right to not have others offend you, and certainly no right to kill people because you are offended.

King argues that the principle of free speech is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to offend and that the modern fetish for sensitivity is corrosive of genuine civility. Well-documented and researched, his book doesn’t just report on the high-profile cases of manufactured offence, but dissects the changes in society that have led to this.

It condemns sensitive souls on the left and right of politics, lambasting both political correctness and religious conservatism. Governments and the media are jointly judged as spineless for their failure to defend freedom of speech in the case of the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

King slates political correctness as moving beyond political liberalism when those fighting against intolerance and bigotry do not seek freedom from others’ views but the freedom to impose their own on others. He also takes aim at what he calls patriotic correctness, where political opponents are browbeaten for undermining national pride.

Finally, King focuses on internet rage, a topic this reviewer has some familiarity with. How often do we hear news stories that include the statement, “Such and such’s comments caused outrage on Twitter”? Twitter has allowed offended tweeters to become newsworthy. Those of us on Twitter know someone is always outraged about something, and some people are in a state of near-perpetual outrage.

King’s book is an excellent insight into the growing culture of intolerance. He does not defend those who give offence. He says they are often zealots, bigots and badmouths who should be condemned as fools. But he implies the larger fools are those who don’t condemn the threats (or actions) of violence from those offended, and those who demand censorship to prevent offensive views.

On Offence should be required reading for all journalists, members of Parliament and anyone who gets offended on a regular basis.


David Farrar commentates on politics and other matters at Kiwiblog.