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Writers blocked

I write to be mischievous, subversive and perverse. There’s no room for any of that in a culture obsessed with offence

In the 1980s, pop psychology promoted the shibboleth that “you can’t argue with what people feel.” Since then, that line has brought many a contentious conversation to an impasse. The consequences of anointing emotion as beyond interrogation are vividly illustrated in Mark Lawson’s biting novel The Allegations: when an aggrieved party feels bullied it means, ipso facto, that he or she has been bullied, and employment tribunals are mere formalities. Sacked by the BBC for the same offence, but never allowed to confront his anonymous accusers whom the Corporation trusted, Lawson should know.

But you can argue with what people feel. Emotions range from the justifiable—grief that a brother just died—to the irrational, unreasonable and disproportionate: spitting fury that you’re not allowed a chocolate cream, but only a caramel. That was me, throwing a tantrum aged 10. Pity I wasn’t born 20 years later. I might have screamed at my mother when she sent me to my room: “But you can’t argue with what people feel!”

Worse, in English “I feel” and “I think” are roughly synonymous.

If we enshrine as a truism that “you can’t argue with what people think,” we can throw in the towel on intellectual debate in perpetuity. Which, the way things are going, maybe we should do.

One emotion has grown so sacrosanct that an astonishingly large segment of Europeans now thinks that provoking it should be illegal: umbrage. According to a 2015 Pew Research Centre poll, only the barest majority of Britons—54 per cent—and a scant 27 per cent of Germans any longer believe government should allow people to make statements offensive to minorities.

(Why only minorities? Wouldn’t equality under the law argue for banning speech offensive to anyone?)

Thus in January, in an interview with the Canadian free-speech advocate Jordan B Peterson that went viral, Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman referred casually to the “right not to be offended,” as if the entitlement were a familiar point of common law. Though Peterson got the better of her in that instance—we don’t often see Newman flustered—defenders of the “right not to be offended” are starting to prevail in European public opinion.

It doesn’t take much parsing to conclude that protecting all and sundry from the terrible experience of having your feelings hurt is the end of free speech altogether. Since nowadays “you can’t argue with what people feel,” umbrage is freed from rational justification. Given that the better part of the human race is crazy, stupid, or both, there’s nary a thought in the world whose airing won’t offend somebody. Doesn’t Darwin offend creationists?

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In Prospect’s March issue: A series of writers turn their thoughts to the developing war over words in the UK and the US. Lionel Shriver, Afua Hirsch, Simon Lancaster, Hugh Tomlinson, Tom Clark and two students ask if free expression is truly compromised? What’s really going on in our universities? And what do voters think? Elsewhere in the issue: Michael Ignatieff questions why today’s left-wing leaders can’t live up to the high mark set by FDR, Sameer Rahim shows how western powers have been trying to dictate what Islam should be, and Mary Beard asks “How do we look?” as our perceptions of what is beautiful have changes over the centuries.