I am offended, therefore I am

The overblown reaction to Jan Moir’s bilious column about Stephen Gately shows offence now trumps open debate.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Free Speech

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It was hardly the surprise of the century that Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote a Daily Mail, prejudice-by-numbers column about recently deceased pop star Stephen Gately. Regular readers probably passed over it muttering ‘homosexual vice? That old chestnut’. What Moir and the Daily Mail probably didn’t reckon on was the band of digital crusaders desperately in search of a cause to affirm their over-weening self-righteousness. For there it was, fluttering on the Daily Mail’s website, like a red-rag to an eagerly-offended bull, a snide, silly article that was more than a little Victorian in its anti-homosexual-lifestyle moralising.

Originally called ‘Why there was nothing “natural” about Stephen Gately’s death’, Jan Moir did exactly what she promised on the bigotry-embossed tin. She explained why there was nothing natural about Stephen Gately’s death. ‘Healthy and fit 33-year-old men’, she hurrumphed, ‘do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again’. Except for those 12 healthy and fit men that die each week from undiagnosed heart conditions (1), which in Gately’s case led to pulmonary edema, a suffocating build-up of fluid on the lungs.

But Moir is not really talking about healthy and fit men here. Moir is talking about gay men. Or more precisely, gay men who drink, who smoke weed, who – and Jan’s jaw drops at this point – have sex with other men. In this case, ‘other men’ means a 25-year-old called Georgi Dochev, a man universally referred to as ‘the Bulgarian’, as if Gately’s death was being narrated by John Le Carré. According to Moir, Gately didn’t die from natural causes, as the medical experts said, but from his vice-ridden lifestyle. Just as other dissimulating, privately deviant celebs will. As Robbie Williams will. As Britney Spears will. As… you get the point. To cap it all off, she concluded by saying that, above all, Gately’s death rents the veil from the ‘happy ever after’ myth of civil partnerships. Not exactly QED.

Unfortunately the only thing thinner than Moir’s argument was the skin of those intent on turning a column into a plinth of neo-fascism.

One-time comedian turned professional twitterer Stephen Fry tweeted his outrage to his 862,000 followers; a crack squadron of outraged commentators, including the Guardian’s Charlie Brooker opined; and a legion of avatars made comments underneath articles: 1,072 at the Daily Mail website alone; 984 others were in warm agreement with Brooker’s self-righteous eruption over at the Guardian. For a man whose often funny stock-in-trade is gloriously convoluted invective, it did seem a bit rich to complain about a woman whose stock-in-trade is crap invective. Still, Brooker and chums are just as entitled to vent their spleen, to shout and moan, and generally get het up about what Stephen Fry in his blog described as ‘a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with’, as a repulsive nobody is to write something horrid in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with.

Yet there was something gratuitous about what Brendan O’Neill described in a column for online magazine Forth as the liberal cause-hunter’s ‘two-minute’ hate. All the commentaries, the blogs, the tweets – all seemed a little too desperate to voice their disapproval, to reveal how disgusted they were. It was a spectacle of feelings, a seething mass of self-affirming emotional incontinence, a carnival of first-person pronouns and expressions of hurt and proxy offence. I feel, therefore I am.

The arguments against Moir were there, of course, which was not surprising given the straw from which they were made. But more important for the spleen-venters was the act of claiming the moral high-ground as offended, as hurt, as a determined victim of something that they no doubt searched out on the web. It’s like hunting down a bona-fide racist and standing in front of him until he says something racist.

This act of searching out offence and proclaiming the depth of one’s feelings from online rooftops threatens free speech. Not because it’s censorship in the official sense – at least, not yet, although the thousand or so urging the Press Complaints Commission to intervene or the person complaining to the police might yet make it official if they get their way. Rather, the danger of such a vast explosion of offence-taking is that it inhibits, creating a ‘you-can’t-say-that’ culture in which one is scared to speak one’s mind, whether its contents are moronic or not.

‘Offensiveness is part of life; the politics of inoffensiveness is a threat to free speech and open debate’, argued O’Neill. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in the Independent today, disagrees, arguing that freedom of speech is fine as long as it’s not ‘without restraint’. But what else is ‘restraint’ but unfreedom? She’s not defending free speech, she’s defending non-offensive speech, where it’s fine to voice an opinion ‘until people’s deep feelings are roused’. And that is the problem. When feelings, especially hurt ones, are given such elevated public value, where it’s enough to claim that ‘the bad Daily Mail columnist hurt my feelings’ for the offending interlocutor to be shamed into silence, then there is no longer free speech. There’s only inhibited speech.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Wendy Kaminer argued that we need to support academic freedom, even for the intolerant, looked at the gay marriage debate in America and defended the ‘right to hate’. Mark Adnum criticised attempts to add a pro-tolerance message to Brüno. Josie Appleton argued that public debate would be much improved if people stopped playing the ‘offence card’. Emily Hill looked at the way that EU leaders used tolerance laws to bash Russians and Poles Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) See the Cardiac Risk in the Young website.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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