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A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays by Brendan O'Neill Paperback – 1 Aug 2015
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I wouldn’t want to identify myself with all Brendan O’Neill’s positions. On topics such as climate change – I think he underestimates the dangers, and on suicide – like many others he sees life as an absolute value regardless of the quality of that life. Here, and sometimes elsewhere, I find it hard to go along with him, but respect his right to express views uncompromisingly, however disturbing I may find them. I make this point of dissent first because O’Neill’s most powerful statements concern the erosion of our right to speak our minds openly. In his fine piece on Spinoza he tells us that “freedom of speech is in a bad way”. How alarming that any of us should need telling. All comes from the “cultural tyranny” of political correctness. The guardians of “right thinking” are as vigilant as Stalin’s internal spies, and the reference to one of the two great tyrannies of recent times is apposite. Increasingly people are vilified, arrested, imprisoned for giving expression to thoughts unpalatable to others. O’Neill alludes to the new illiberalism, paradoxically masquerading as liberalism, which has taken such a relentless hold on every aspect of our lives. We fail to pay attention at our peril.
Yesterday I read that the footballer Paul Gascoigne, in his latest reincarnation as public speaker, told a “racist” joke at one of his sessions. He may well have done. Of course we are not permitted to hear officially what he said in case those reporting his words also feel their collars felt by the legal arm that seeks out hate crimes. What on earth has happened to us that we crumple under the onslaught of a few ill-chosen words from the lips of someone hardly hailed for his intellectual precocity? How patronising to those seen as the victims, so feeble that they are permanently scarred by any uneducated, cerebrally limited fool who chooses to open his mouth. Elsewhere, O’Neill draws attention to the opposite end of the educational spectrum. At Oxford and Cambridge universities sexual consent classes are compulsory for first year students! Laughable? Emphatically yes, were it not that it is true and the fortresses of free speech and radical thought now ban from these seats of learning any speaker likely to cause offence to the pathetically vulnerable inmates. If “inmates” suggests a very different kind of institution, that may be all too appropriate too.
One of the most important essays in this book is entitled “The Multicultural Conceit.” All religions are now equal. The fact that some may enshrine civilised values and others act as sanctuaries for brutality and oppression is forbidden territory. The idea that a culture’s values may well be something to value in moral terms, that generations of philosophical, scientific and artistic advances are something to cherish is anathema to the apostles of the multicultural ideal. O’ Neill speaks no truer words in the whole book than that “ multiculturalism makes a virtue of a moral vacuum”.
This is more than a deliberately provocative book. O’Neill is much more than some bête noir sniping at the establishment, however much the liberally illiberal media – “The Guardian”, BBC et al, would have us believe. In essays such as “Drunk Sex”, “Kant v The Koran” and his vital and powerful post script: “A Duty to Offend” he hits nails squarely on the head, but we are still a very long way from nailing the lies that threaten to destroy the best that great men and women have given to us over the centuries.