Brendan O’Neill upholds the duty to offend.

On 5 March The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Believes the Right to Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend“.

If you yearn to watch all the speeches in the debate in the order they were delivered you can do so here. I may well explore more than one of the speeches in the fullness of time, but today I shall examine the first. It comes from Brendan O’Neill.

I have been looking back through the blog at O’Neill’s speaking, and my comments on it, since this post here. The improvement is startling. Since I first came across him he has been a fine writer but the standard of his speaking used to lag far behind, not least because he appeared not to see the huge difference between the two communication media.

I see him now and it is clear that he not only understands the difference but that he has worked at this medium. I want to cheer, because he has so much sense to articulate. He has shown himself to be a fierce and uncompromising defender of free speech, and that is why he is here.

He is out of the starting blocks at a sprint. He hurls at his audience a succession of blockbuster examples across history of people, later revered, whose opinions were held to be offensive to the orthodoxy of their time. He shows that those doing the offending were usually the giants of their generation, and those who tried to silence them were always the pygmies. They showed themselves to be pygmies by trying to silence the contrary view rather than engaging with it and out-arguing it. It’s a wonderful speech that makes me want to cheer.

There’s seems to be a widespread view that says that all opinions held in the past were primitive, naive and wrong; but that those we hold today are correct. We’ve reached the finishing line. All history of all things pointed to this moment of total enlightenment. Now finally we’ve got it right. The science is settled. The debate is over. If you disagree with us you are wrong – by definition – and a bad person.

What I find puzzling about this is not just the pitiful arrogance, but the imbecility of it. It’s a philosophical position that has been repeatedly adopted for thousands of years, and always collapsed. Yet still it has its adherents – principally among the intelligentsia. You have to be an intellectual to be quite that stupid. I feel I want to pat them gently on the head with a soothing, “yes dear”, and offer them a mug of warm cocoa.

O’Neill on the other hand wants to show them how idiotic their position is, and as a speaker he does it very effectively. He has almost reached the point at which he would trust himself enough to be rid of paper. Indeed so seldom does he glance at his notes that he could now afford no longer to do it surreptitiously. It is acceptable quite openly to glance at notes to remind yourself of your next argument, as long as you then shoot it from the hip. O’Neill is very close to that level and it makes him almost as formidable on his feet as he is on paper.

His final sentence rocked me. It was supposed to. It made the whole speech memorable. It neatly typified his whole argument.

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