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I Find That Offensive by Claire Fox

Terri Murray isn’t offended by Claire Fox’s book about the politics of being offended.

In this pithy, ebullient addition to Biteback Publishing’s ‘Provocations’ series, Claire Fox, the director and founder of the British think-tank the Institute of Ideas, makes a rousing appeal to ‘Generation Snowflake’ to throw off their bubble wrap and embrace the liberating responsibilities of adult life. To those of us born before 1980, it’s mind-boggling that the age-old wisdom Fox dispenses in this book should be considered ‘provocation’ at all. Consequently, readers like myself who have not yet been lobotomized by the culture of adult colouring books and naval-gazing ‘mindfulness’ can almost smell the author’s refreshing irony lurking in the subtext of every page. However, the author is not content to simply sneer at an entire generation by dubbing them ‘Snowflakes’ and ‘cry-babies’, because this does not explain why their prickly tendency to take offense is happening on such an epic scale. She delves deeper into the new cultural norm of fragility to identify its root causes in the privileging of victimhood.

The Triumph of Victimhood

Maryam Namazie
“Shut up Maryam, you’re scaring us!”
Maryam portrait © Bread & Roses 2014

Fox recalls how before the corpses of the Charlie Hebdo journalists had even grown cold, many who had initially defended the principle of free expression had U-turned to denouncing as inflammatory and offensive the cartoons that catalysed the incident, implying that the Hebdo staff were themselves to blame for the violence they suffered. So low has the tolerance bar fallen that one no longer has even to be conscious of her own ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘homophobia’, ‘cissexism’ or ‘Islamophobia’ in order to be guilty of these thought crimes. ‘Microaggressions theory’ has sprung up to diagnose your unconscious bias, and to legitimise victims’ feelings of being macro-aggrieved. Hate-speech legislation, such as in Britain, only bolsters this imbalance of power between victim and perpetrator, by defining ‘hate speech’ as any speech that someone claims is racist, etc, irrespective of the speaker’s intentions or the context of his speech. Who needs blasphemy law when we’ve got the freewheeling, arbitrary, and unlimited redefinition of terms such as ‘racism’? So broad now is the scope of the term it could feasibly apply to just about anything touching on race. This is particularly worrying because, if racism can mean everything, then it ceases to mean anything. Anti-racism should be a vivid, living ethic, not a dead dogma that we unthinkingly apply more promiscuously than a two-peckered billy goat.

Fox observes how today’s self-defined victims acquire perverse authority through adopting an ‘oppressed’ status, to the extent that even mild criticism of their beliefs can be tantamount to hate speech, effectively giving them or their beliefs special immunity from criticism. In a politicised version of this behaviour, notes Fox, groups historically denied equal rights all-too-often now cast themselves as perennial victims. Thus the legitimate progressive ideal of universal equal treatment has degenerated into victim-privileging, and whereas past liberation struggles focused on uniting people across cultural, gender, ethnic, and religious lines, today’s pseudo-progressives relentlessly compete to out-rank one another for cultural recognition, using victimhood as currency to gain resources and power. For veteran leftist social justice activists, the ease with which the younger generation of would-be liberal left progressives fall into divisive in-fighting is vexing. What they’re really doing is accomplishing the right’s task for them, by destroying liberalism from within. A good example Fox cites is the vicious unrelenting civil war between feminists on social media, as womens’ movements splinter into ever pettier, narrower identity grouplets.

Additional erosion of liberal politics can be seen in multiculturalism’s annexation of anti-racism. With state support linked to cultural identity, Fox cites a case where a group of mainly ethnic minority women artists was ‘encouraged’ to self-identify as a Muslim group (none of them were religious) and subsequently focus their output on Islamophobia in order to merit consideration for future funding. Then there was the feminist organization at Goldsmith’s University in London that allied itself with a group of men from the Islamic Society who wanted to shut down ex-Muslim feminist and human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie when she attempted to address a campus meeting. If the Muslim men really felt that their safety was threatened by Namazie’s free speech, it would have been easier not to attend a meeting that was intended for secular humanists anyway. What they wanted was to ensure that the humanists could not listen to Namazie, not that they be protected from her impious discourse. Although Fox does not spell it out, the bigger picture is that multiculturalism currently trumps all other progressive left values. And since religious authoritarianism flies under the ‘multiculturalism’ banner, waving it will ensure fast-track entry into the public arena, while liberal values must politely stand aside. So no longer do we appeal to universal human reason to win an argument. Having a better argument is less important than being the right type of person. It’s a kind of ad hominem fallacy in reverse: what one says is less important than who says it.

Those without sufficient victim status try to compensate by empathizing with victim groups, as though other people’s suffering might rub off some credibility. According to Fox, this explains the escalating trend for privileged liberals to be especially offended on behalf of victim groups and dress it up as a form of social justice political activism. Many of those traditionally associated with left-wing movements have hopped on this bandwagon, resulting in a pre-emptory refusal to criticise minority groups that has chilled discussion and paralysed intervention in cases such as the systematic sexual exploitation of young girls in some British towns. Self-censorship is rife on issues that are perceived as ‘culturally sensitive’, from FGM and child marriage to religious satire.

Making victimhood into a valued social commodity has led to an endless search for it, resulting in screwball scenarios where some cash in on what author Michelle Malkin describes in her blog as ‘the cult of oppression chic’. Fox cites the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign’s Shaun King, scourge of white privilege, who was disgraced when his supporters conceded that his birth certificate describes him as white, despite passing himself off as a person of colour. Then there was the bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal, who built her entire career as an African-American civil rights activist despite being born Caucasian. Interestingly, Dolezal began to identify as black after losing a lawsuit in which she accused Howard University of discriminating against her for being white.

Safe From Harm?

To further explain what has generated offense-susceptible students, Fox points the finger at us, their elders, for socialising them into a culture of health and safety mania in which we catastrophise life’s challenges and obsess on health scares and child protection. Perhaps the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who led relatively ‘free-range’ childhoods watched too many Hollywood disaster movies about endangered kids and heroic parents, because their offspring, born after 1980, got a consistent message that ‘life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm’. Examples Fox gives are the UK Chief Medical Officer calling obesity a ‘national threat’ on a par with terrorism, and British Labour MP Keith Vaz declaring a ‘war on sugar’ in Parliament. An hysterical zeal for children’s safety has become a cliché, spiraling into an outright moral panic in which the child protection industry actively encourages children to see potential abuse everywhere. Children’s charities and NGOs, in constantly broadening definitions of abuse, actively encourage children to be suspicious of such harmless tensions as ‘being pressurised or manipulated into making decisions’ or when someone (such as a parent) ‘tries to control you or push you too hard’. It is hardly surprising, says Fox, if our children have internalised the climate of distrust and fear that we have institutionalised, and become hypersensitive to potential offense.

In a culture where expanded definitions of bullying routinely link it to the psychological realm and mental illness, Fox fears the anti-bullying industry is becoming the real danger to young peoples’ states of mind. Instead of helping young people to put unpleasant experiences into perspective, we emphasise how traumatic they are and encourage children to over-react. Widening the scope of ‘bullying’ to include everything from ‘spreading rumours’ to ‘just being ignored’ creates an environment where kids are discouraged from developing coping mechanisms and are taught to exaggerate minor emotional growing pains as so devastating to their mental health that they need psychological support to cope. But disappointment, stress, and frustration are integral parts of life, not mental illnesses. It is no wonder that Generation Snowflake goes off to college preoccupied by their wellbeing and prone to seeing themselves as victims. We have pathologised what were once considered basic experiences of student life, including being broke, staying up all night to get an essay finished, and periods of loneliness.

The over-protection of children by a risk-averse culture has also blurred the line between physical and psychological harm. Until very recently, liberals followed John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the architect of modern liberal political philosophy, in defining ‘mental harm’ rather narrowly. Mill saw mental harm as involving impairment of an individual’s development, for example, refusing to let children have an education. He regarded this as much more serious than merely having one’s feelings hurt – which often does help us to develop, say, resiliance. Mill also understood harm as something that happens against our will. When we find someone offensive we can avoid them and continue our lives with no damage done. As for the claim that we are harmed by the mere existence of people who live in ways of which we disapprove, Mill’s response is that our ‘interest’ in not being offended is relatively less important than our interest in not being physically injured, detained, or criminally deceived. Fox urges people to get back to this more robust understanding of harm – one that leaves room for legitimate parental discipline and proper academic pressure.

The Politics of Protection

Not only have over-protective policies made a ‘health fetish’ of purging life of all discomforts, they have also begun to medicalise student politics. Fox points to how university culture is dominated by therapy-style political discourse whereby demands to ban speakers are framed in the language of psychiatry. All manner of political disagreement are labelled as ‘phobias’ (e.g. Islamophobia, homophobia), conveniently making rational argument with the ‘diseased’ opponent (the ‘patient’) pointless. The demand for self-examination levelled against anyone who disagrees with the status quo is emotional blackmail reminiscent of repressive Soviet-style ‘medicine’.

Even childrens’ informal activities are organised and supervised, and ‘free time’ structured and monitored. ‘Helicopter parents’ have abandoned their duty of socialising children to become self-reliant. Instead they nurture childrens’ expectations to be reliant on outside intermediaries, encouraging them to wallow in dependency, thereby furnishing them excuses to avoid grown-up responsibilities. The younger generation gain a false sense of empowerment from external agencies and institutions on which they are dependent and there is an insidious paternalism in this trend. Reduction of young peoples’ responsibility and autonomy fetters them to external authorities and undermines their liberty.

Fox identifies other culprits in the creation of a generation of entitled narcissists. Among them are ‘student voice’ and ‘self-esteem’. Fee-paying students now see the teacher-pupil relationship in terms of customer service. Viewing teachers primarily as service providers undermines their authority and ignores the fact that teaching involves an unequal relationship. Lecturers who have the temerity to actually lecture have missed the memo from today’s academic CEOs that requires them to be ‘co-learners’. Teachers are told that in order to engage their pupils they should make all subject matter relate to them. The aim of discovering in literature or art something transcendent and universal about the human condition which binds our experiences to people throughout history is secondary to finding ways to turn the gaze of art and literature inwards on what is specific to being me. Thus, Generation Snowflake is being told that thousands of years of literature, philosophy and historical insight are to be sidelined to accommodate their identities. This approach gives students’ opinions, however childish or poisonous, a sense of privilege. The demand to express unconditional positive regard for young people’s views, says Fox, “effectively destroys the intergenerational duty of passing on knowledge, setting boundaries for behaviour, and the broader task of socialisation.” Consequently, students never learn to cope with disappointment or accept criticism – essential skills that they will need as they grow up (if they do).

Fox concludes her book with a rousing address to Generation Snowflake itself. The harsh reality, she says, is that their rebellion is not against the prevailing orthodoxies. These ‘rebels’ are kicking an open door, singing from the cultural relativists’ PC hymn sheet, and in doing so are tools of those in authority. Their youthful zeal lends credibility to existing policies that leave real progressive causes floundering. Authentic rebels need the kind of moral autonomy and independence that is achieved through genuine intellectual argument, not just by smearing your opponent or by depending upon infantile authoritarian ‘protection’ from his or her reasoning.

Today’s zeitgeist, says Fox, venerates the ‘vulnerable victim’ form of personality, such that strength is demonised as arrogance or misrepresented as violence. What then is to be done? First, instead of taking misanthropic negativity as a premise, why not foreground human potential by looking to the individual’s strength instead of promoting his weakness? To progress beyond a victim culture, the young will need to courageously wage war against all those forces that stress ‘security’ above civil liberties and free speech, forging their own philosophies but also shamelessly standing on the shoulders of giants. And they will need to grow a backbone to face down all those who will want to shut them up.

© Dr Terri Murray 2017

Terri Murray is a graduate of New York University’s Film School. She has taught Film Studies at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities in London since 2002, and is author of Feminist Film Studies (2007).

I Find That Offensive, by Claire Fox, Biteback, 2016, £9.99, 208 pp, ISBN: 1849549818

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