Features Australia

‘I’m offended’ has won

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

Earlier in the year, Janet Albrechtsen wrote in the Australian that ‘the cult of taking offence was running rife on university campuses, where it threatens to do the most damage,’ and that ‘the coddling of the Australian student mind is under way.’

Of course, we’ve heard this all before. When it comes to free speech, challenging debate and diversity of views, the antipathy of universities is well documented. Right-wing commentators analyse universities in the manner of scientists peering into a petri dish, fascinated by the anomalies of their specimen though keeping a comfortable distance. For students, the ‘I’m offended’ doctrine is par for the course; they are so exposed, it’s basically their second degree.

The underlying assumption was that ‘I’m offended’ would not make it off campus. Surely some good op-eds could help roll back the hypersensitivity, marginalisation of different views and abandonment of reason for emotion, we thought.

What a mistake.

We’ve reached the point where there’s no hope of putting brakes on ‘I’m offended’. If you oppose this trend, you’ve lost. Permanently entrenched in universities, it is exporting itself, pervading the workplace, parliament and the national discussion.

Taking offence is now the natural reaction of people to any uncomfortable idea or debate. Recently, software engineer for Google, James Damore, wrote an internal memo on diversity. He said population distributions suggested preferences and abilities of men and women may differ partly due to biological causes. He wrote ‘many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual…’ He also compiled a list of ways to increase women in tech, said he strongly believed in gender diversity and argued that viewpoint was the most powerful form of diversity, proposing more support for conservatives.

Yet no amount of qualification could save him after his memo had caused offence. He was sacked and, using language reminiscent of universities, Google said employees had the right to express themselves but the memo had ‘advanced harmful gender stereotypes.’ Protecting people from offence took priority, even if it required some double-think.

Damore was empirical, concise, and had an eye for patterns. He exuded the traits of an engineer. I know because I’m an engineering student and like Damore, I doubt the gender gap implies sexism. However, it’s interesting that not even the technical minds of engineers escape pervasive university rhetoric. Engineering study includes a cultural competency module, which involves each member of the class sharing an experience of personal discrimination. Of course discrimination is awful, but in a class where the focus should be on calculus, the focus on cultural competency suggests ‘I’m offended’ is constantly being brought to the forefront of the mind.

Engineers aren’t immune from ‘I’m offended’ rhetoric and neither are centre-right politicians, as shown by the metamorphosis of Attorney-General George Brandis. In the Abbott government, Brandis was passionately committed to the repeal of 18C. He said in Brendan O’Neill’s A Duty to Offend, ‘Your good faith is tested by whether or not you would defend the right to free speech of people with whom you profoundly disagree. That’s the test.’ According to Brandis, people had a ‘right to be a bigot’. The right to freedom of expression trumped the right to no offence; although sometimes challenging to uphold, Brandis believed it would ultimately lead to a healthier society.

Brandis’ response to Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt reflects how rapidly thing have changed. Caught off guard by the strange move, it seemed Brandis felt vulnerable and defaulted to taking offence. He told Hanson ‘be very, very careful of the offence you may do to the religious sensibilities of other Australians,’ with tears and cracked voice. Chris Kenny, also in the Australian, wrote this was an ‘overreaction’. Brandis’s choice of language reflected a university-style approach; taking offence instead of tackling the idea; identifying offence before fallacies. The fact he has adopted this language under pressure is a big shift, considering his history. One must always be conscious of whose language one adopts. Whoever wins the war of words, wins the battle of ideas.

‘I’m offended’ rhetoric has won in society as the natural response to clashes of ideas. In the world of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, where all books are burned to prevent offence, the chief book-burner explains that ‘It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick.’

Our censorious culture hasn’t ‘trickled down’. Rather, it started at universities then gushed upwards. Engineers would call it liquefaction, when soil below the ground suddenly acts like water, bubbling and spluttering up towards the surface, demolishing the buildings above. Gillian Triggs, a champion of ‘I’m offended’, is a red herring. She’s a symptom not a cause. Where was Triggs before she was head of the AHRC? A student, then an academic and then dean of a university law school.

What starts at university ends up in society. Albrechtsen and others have underestimated the coddling of the Australian student mind; it’s not just underway, it’s complete. With so many people attending university it will be the norm not just for students, but for minds everywhere. Most do not question it and those who do keep their ‘wrong-think’ strictly to themselves.

Briefly it seemed the revolts of 2016 were in some way turning back this tide, forcing open debate. However, it’s clear these events were not transformative. They were like James Damore; a small glitch within a supercomputer which will ultimately be corrected.

It’s hard to see what hope a centre-right government has, when the ground-swell of ‘I’m offended’ is gaining so many minds. The Prime Minister doesn’t have a conception of this issue, nor the interest in warding it off, no matter how much he may wax lyrical about ‘freedom’. Freedom starts with freedom of thought. Freedom is when reasonable minds with different views clash magnificently on difficult subjects but can walk away from the discussion as mates. This should be commonplace, valued in institutions of learning and greater society, but it’s not. It’s time to accept we lost it.

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