offending the audience

conference on 'all together now?: british theatre after multiculturalism', warwick arts centre,
14 june 2008

The real issue at the heart of any debate about the giving of offence is not about offensiveness itself, but about diversity: about how we conceive of it and why we think it is a good. The different arguments about offensiveness and whether, and how far, it should be tolerated, are really arguments about the nature of diversity itself.

Underlying the claim that the giving of offence is a cultural and moral wrong is the belief that a plural society places particular demands on speech, and that speech must necessarily be less free in such a society. For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which help give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs both to minimise friction between antagonistic cultures and beliefs and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

It’s an argument that seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand both the nature of diversity and the relationship between pluralism and free speech. When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there full of clashes and conflicts. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Or to put it another way, diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes by engaging in dialogue and debate and by putting different values, beliefs and lifestyles to the test.

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what many people fear. And that fear takes two forms. On the one hand you have the Little Englander sentiment: immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of British or Englishness, turning our cities into little Lahores or mini-Kingstons. And on the other you have the multicultural argument: diversity is good, but it has to be policed to minimise the friction that it generates. The imposition of moral and legal restraints on being offensive is one form of such policing.

I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way, then the giving of offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And so they should be resolved openly, not suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’.

But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, it is also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’

The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

Of course, most critics who argue for restraint on matter of offensiveness would have no problem with political or social or cultural criticism. What is unacceptable, they would argue, is when such criticism crosses the line and becomes abuse or obscenity. There is all the difference, as the philosopher Shabbir Akhtar put it during the height of the controversy over The Satanic Verses, between ‘sound historical criticism’ and ‘scurrilously imaginative writing’. Akhtar, who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques in the wake of the infamous book-burning demonstration in January 1989, suggested that the real debate was not about ‘freedom of speech versus censorship’ but about ‘legitimate criticism versus obscenity and slander’. Exactly the same point has been made by every opponent of offensive talk: by those who shut down Behzti, by those who would have liked to have shut down Jerry Springer: The Opera, by those who suggest that Seven Jewish Children is unacceptable because it crosses the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

But the question arises: who makes that judgement call? Who decides what is legitimate criticism and what is obscenity and slander? And the answer you give again depends on how you view the nature and value of diversity. One of the unstated assumptions underlying the argument for restraint on offensive talk is that diversity ends at edges of minority communities. The claim that The Satanic Verses is offensive to Muslims, or Bezhti to Sikhs, or Jerry Springer to Christians suggests that there is a Muslim community or a Sikh community or a Christian community all of whose members are offended by the work in question and whose ostensible leaders are the most suitable judges of what is and is not suitable for that community. But as Jatinder Verma puts it, what is often called offence to a community is actually a conversation or debate within that community. That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, and so on.

Shabbir Akhtar no more spoke for Muslims than Salman Rushdie did. Both represented different strands of opinion. So did Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and the protestors outside the Birmingham Rep outraged by her play Bezhti. But Shabbir Akhtar has come to be seen as an authentic Muslim, and the anti-Bezhti protestors as proper Sikhs, while Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti are regarded as too 'Westernized', secular or progressive to be truly of their community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Bezhti. The argument that offensive talk should be restrained is, then, both rooted in a stereotype of what it is to be an authentic member of a particular community and helps reinforce that stereotype. And in doing so, it ensures that only one side of the conversation gets heard.

Jatinder Verma is directing a production of Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album at the National that will open later this summer. The production, like the novel, like The Satanic Verses, in response to the controversy around which The Black Album was written, will offend some people. Others will find it vitally important. That is the nature of conversation in a plural society. It is not the job of arts administrators to decide who can speak or what they can say. It is their job, rather, to encourage, as best they can within an artistic setting, that conversation to flourish.