I gave a talk on Wednesday night to the Studienbibliothek in Hamburg. Entitled ‘Left, Right and Islamism’ the talk explored the ways in which the responses of both left and right to Islamism have betrayed of basic principles of freedom and liberty. One of the key themes in the discussion afterwards was about how the liberal fear of giving offence has helped created the space for Islamists to take offence. The more that we worry that people will be offended by a book or a play or a cartoon or an idea or a thought, the more we give licence for people to be so offended, and the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended.

It is not just Islamists who live by outrage. Returning to Britain, I discover in the three days I’ve been away three incidents that perfectly illustrate how everyone now wants to feel offended – or rather how the authorities, from the police to trade union bureaucrats, seem to want everyone to feel offended.

First, there was the case of the woman whose racist rant on a Croydon tram went viral after another passenger videoed it on a mobile and posted it on YouTube. The police tracked her down from that video, charged her with ‘racially and religiously aggravated harassment’ and got her remanded in custody. Then came Jeremy Clarkson who made a typically inane joke about public sector workers needing to be shot. UNISON, the public sector union, demanded his sacking and a police investigation. And then Manchester City footballer Micah Richards received some racist backchat on his Twitter feed. @WillMadine94 tweeted: ‘You big fat nigger u r shit. Martin Kelly over u all day for england. Play for africa!!!’. Lincolnshire police launched an investigation (the tweeter is believed to live in the county) and are trying to track him down.

Each of these incidents is different, ranging from poor taste to hateful abuse, and each requires a different response. What none of them requires is for the law to intervene.

Tram woman was nasty and abusive; she is of a kind I have faced many times in my life (though thankfully rarely in recent years). The way to deal with her was as the passengers on the tram actually did: they confronted her and challenged her abuse.

Clarkson should simply have been ignored. He is like the pub bore whose whole aim is to provoke a effect. The more that people rise to the bait, the more they make his day. At least Clarkson had the excuse that he was trying to make joke. UNISON has no such excuse. There is, as David Allen Green pointed out, something more than a little odious about a trade union ‘calling for someone to be summarily sacked. No disciplinary procedure, no due process, no contract rights: the man should be fired immediately.’

@WillMadine94  is one of those foul-mouthed, bigoted trolls that pop up all too frequently on the web (though he seems now to have deleted his Twitter account). Richards, if he had really felt offended, could have blocked @WillMadine94 on his Twitter feed.  Instead, Richards responded: ‘Love the racist abuse keep it coming… ☺.’Hardly the response of someone shattered by the abuse. The police decided to step in anyway.

Outrage these days has become almost a means of defining oneself, of marking out one’s identity. I know who I am because I am outraged by this, you know who you are because you are outraged by that. Muslims, Christians, atheists, liberals, conservatives –  for every group outrage has become an expression of self-definition. The mark of identity is the possession of a thin skin. Monica Ali, whose novel Brick Lane caused umbrage among some Bangladeshis, talked in an interview I did for my book From Fatwa to Jihad, of the creation of a ‘marketplace of outrage’:

What we have developed today is a marketplace of outrage. And if you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’

Indeed they do. It is a marketplace that is quickly becoming more crowded than a passport queue at Heathrow airport.

The marketplace of outrage is not, however, simply a means of creating self-identity. It is also a means of social regulation. Speech regulation – whether of hate speech or of offensive speech – is becoming a mechanism through which the authorities can police relations between groups in an era of identity politics. in an increasingly tribal society, the slightest whiff of saying something unacceptable has become a matter for social discipline.  It is a kind of society that Islamists revere. What is extraordinary is how many liberals, and those on the left, seem to desire it too. I’m outraged.


  1. Interesting write-up but I think it’s a bit idealistic. Freedom of speech is a myth. The mainstream channels of information and communication are owned by the corporate interests. What kind of truth can we expect from a corporate media? I don’t think that they will tell us the truth that goes against their own interests. The primary goal of corporate media is making profits, not telling the truth. Eight years after the invasion and occupation of Iraq what do we know about the real reasons for waging that war? Was it about WMDs or bringing democracy to Iraq or the second largest proven oil reserves? Similarly what do we know about the Arab Autumn in Libya? Was it about getting rid of an evil tyrant or trying to secure 1.6 million barrels of oil per day (2 % of global oil consumption)? Who is responsible for the deaths of 200,000 Iraqis, 30,000 to 50,000 Libyans? Where is our much touted freedom of information and freedom of inquiry?

    People get offended by minor happening all over the world due to the advancement in information technology and the proliferation of TV channels. Various cultures hold certain signs and symbols as sacred and their reaction is natural. Does the right to free speech not have any symbolic sacredness attached to it? Will we not feel outrage if someone violates it? But aside from it’s symbolic significance where do we find freedom of expression and freedom of information? Web 2.0 perhaps but it doesn’t have a significant audience that can shape the public policy.

    Freedom is not a right. It is a privilege that should be earned. Those who indulge in hate speech are violent people and they should be punished by the law. Physical wounds can heal easily but the wounds inflicted by hate speech have a lasting effect on individuals and communities. Freedom of inquiry is an academic right and only the people who have earned it are entitled to use it for the advancement of science and betterment of humanity.

    P.S. I apologize for being impolite but I got a little carried away while writing this comment. Cheers!

    • @nauman:

      “Freedom is not a right. It is a privilege that should be earned.”

      freedom is an ambiguous term, but whatever one ascribes to it, most certainly in The UK certain freedoms are rights unless taken away. under your scenario it would be the opposite: no one has rights until they earn them. and just who decides how to earn a right?

      “Those who indulge in hate speech are violent people and they should be punished by the law. Physical wounds can heal easily but the wounds inflicted by hate speech have a lasting effect on individuals and communities.”

      a punch in the face is violent- there is little grey area accept in how much it hurts, but hate speech can be hurtful to some and humorous to others- that is not the litmus test for violence. have we really gotten to the point where hurt feelings are equated with physical harm?

      “Freedom of inquiry is an academic right and only the people who have earned it are entitled to use it for the advancement of science and betterment of humanity.”

      this sounds familiar: oh yes its India’s Brahmin caste! how wonderful for the %0.001 of society that could indulge their intellectual curiosities while the rest avert their gaze!

    • Nauman, think about the logic of your argument: Media corporations censor the truth. So the solution is… more censorship. I’m not sure that quite makes sense.

      Ask yourself this: who is it that benefits most from censorship? Not the powerless and the vulnerable but rather those that possess both the power to censor and the necessity to do so. That is why the argument that is often made in favour of censorship – and which you seem to making – that the capacity for free speech is in the hands of just a few – media barons or government ministries – actually has it back to front. The power to censor is in the hands of the few. But the capacity for free speech is in all our mouths. The real value of free speech is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. I’m sure media moguls and government ministers would have no problem in accepting the idea that ‘Freedom is not a right. It is a privilege that should be earned.’ That, after all, is often their view already.

      As for the idea that ‘Freedom of inquiry is an academic right and only the people who have earned it are entitled to use it for the advancement of science and betterment of humanity’ – who would decide who possessed the right to inquire? And how would you prevent those not on your magic list from inquiring? Perhaps burning them at the stake as the Church used to do? Or throwing them into the gulags as in the Soviet Union? Or perhaps just by refusing them access to journals as sometimes happens now? I’m afraid you seem not to have the faintest idea what ‘freedom of inquiry’ or ‘free speech’ actually means.

    • So everyone else is a coward and never tells the truth if it goes against their interest. Please tell us what your interests are so we will know when not to believe you. Oh, wait, you are the one honest citizen who gives it to us straight, right? And please, not another blood for oil argument. The evil tyrant in Libya was more than willing to sell the world oil as fast as he could pump it out of the ground, and the world was more than happy to sell him bigger and better pumps, and his suffering people be damned. Forty years of a crazy dictator meant a nation unprepared for anything but a violent struggle when he fell. If anything, the use of military force by the western powers lessened the carnage. And guess what? The new Libyan government still owns the oil, and still sells it to the same oil refiners at the same market prices. How exactly is the oil more “secure” than it was before?

    • Gedrick


      “Those who indulge in hate speech are violent people and they should be punished by the law.”

      How’s this? I’ll say whatever I want. Fuck you Nauman. Think I should be “punished by the law” now because I’m a violent person? Freedom IS a right. So piss off.

    • I don’t moderate the comments on this blog, because I think that best for engaging in debate. However, in return, I expect people to maintain a certain level of civility. So, Gedrick, say what you wish, but keep it civil. And no, that’s not contrary to my views on free speech. This is my personal blog, run for my reasons, not anybody else’s.

  2. Thanks for the very articulate responses. I only wanted to make a distinction between absolute right and contingent right. Freedom of inquiry and freedom of information are absolute rights while freedom of expression is a contingent right.

    By all these advancement in information and communication technology, the people belonging to different cultures are coming in close contact. If an incident happens in Denmark or USA it’s repercussions are felt in the remote corners of Islamic countries. It is the responsibility of the media to take the sensibilities of different cultures into account. Rather than sensationalizing differences, it should highlight the positive aspects of different cultures. For instance: people live a very peaceful life in Pakistan and Iran. But when we look at media reports it gives the impression that violence is the norm and peace is an exception in these countries. The media only reports when something extraordinary happens and it is silent about the everyday ordinary peaceful lives of Pakistanis and Iranis. And then it gives the impression that there is something intrinsically wrong with the culture and religion of Muslims.

    @Jeff Borasto:
    A punch in the face can be just as humorous to some people like in boxing. In any fight there are two or more parties, the bully and the victim. The bully derives pleasure from violence while the victim suffers pain. If a speech is manifestly and palpably hateful, and if it is malicious and it is not made in public good then in my opinion it should be outlawed. It constitutes a form of verbal assault just like the physical one.

    @Kenan Malik:
    I agree with the gist of your argument that we need more freedom rather than less. But to put it more accurately we need more relevant freedom of inquiry and information and less irrelevant freedom of hateful expression. I understand that the implementation of this latter principle is quite difficult. But the first principle is based on a binary, i.e. all freedom is good and all restraint is evil. The second principle makes a distinction between inquiry and information on the one hand and expression and catharsis on the other. The law pertaining to inquiry and information should be interpreted more liberally while the latter should be somewhat restrictive.

    I’ve written a relevant blogpost: Political Tolerance vs. Intellectual Toleration which you may like to read:

    • Alex Blanks

      Who decides what is in the public good when it comes to free speech? If you limit it at all, you are setting up a valid argument to be outlawed if it goes against the judgement of whoever is in power, does it not?

  3. Mp

    “What none of them requires is for the law to intervene”??? What, even with the Croydon tram woman who is clearly committing a criminal offence?!

    • Yes, it’s an extraordinary story, and Griffin’s was a highly courageous stance. What I’d add, though, is that just as it’s important to defend the idea of free speech for all, including bigots, it’s also morally incumbent upon those who argue for free speech from a radical perspective to challenge bigotry at every turn. The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral.

  4. I wonder how this cult of outrage relates to the cult of victimhood. There seems to be a direction connection, ie. feeling like a victim legitimises the expression of outrage. But also an indirect one, in that outrage is often felt by third parties on behalf of others. Perhaps one might call this phenomenon ‘victimhood by proxy’ and analyse its pathology in the same way: the attractions to individuals of wallowing in certain childish emotional states, and the peculiar and irresponsible forbearance of liberal society in allowing this to go on

    • Maybe expressions of outrage and victimhood could be distinguished by their intentionality: becoming outraged at what other people are doing (to whomever), versus identifying oneself (or someone else) as a victim of whomever’s actions.

  5. paul

    Great piece, well said. Seeing all the public figures and wealthy like Hugh Grant hamming it up about press invasion of their lives was another facet of the phenomenon. Thicker skins, people!

  6. @Daniel Warren
    I am not making the argument that evil tyranny is good. I am merely saying that status quo is better than war. Especially when the motives of going to war are to secure oil and disguised in the lofty rhetoric of democracy, rights and liberties. We should look at the situation in Libya and Syria by doing a cost-benefit analysis. If 30,000 to 50,000 people die just to exchange one set of anti-West elite for another set of pro-West elite, I don’t see any benefit for the underclass of Libyans and Syrians in this equation. Fact of the matter is that we lack a just economic system except perhaps the social democratic systems of tiny Denmark and Scandinavian countries. We are trying to reconcile contradictory ends, i.e. neo-liberal growth vs. socialist equality. If we go for economic growth it results in class inequality. And if we go for equality it results in the flight of capital, lack on profit-making incentives and consequent stagnation. It’s a dilemma but since I am not an economist so I am a little confused, what to do?

    If we can make world-wide global organizations such as WTO and IMF to regulate the free trade and to secure the interests of big corporations then why can’t we make such transnational organizations for the protection of the rights of underclass? Such organizations should set the minimum wage, better working conditions, unemployment insurance, stopping the flight of capital from the states who enact legislation for the betterment of the working classes. And if any member state violates such conditions it should be made an outcast in the global economy, just the way WTO and IMF do it to the states who don’t follow their regulations.

    I’ve strayed away from the topic. NATO doesn’t want to own the Iraqi or Libyan oil (though production sharing agreements are quite lucrative for the big oil). They only want to secure the major oil producing regions. They want to ensure the steady supply of oil to their allies and they want to deny access to the competing powers. Military and defense strategists are cynical people. They can go a long way only to avert some phantasmagorical threat to their ‘vital interests’ even to the extent of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

  7. Very interesting post.

    I just wondered, when you advised the correct, or most useful, action for responding to events like “tram lady” and Clarkson’s rantings, what was the end goal? When you advocate either challenging of abhorrent views or ignoring attention seekers is that with an aim in mind? And if so, what is it? Is it to silence or end such behaviour? Is it to reduce the harm that results? Is it what we are “morally” required to do?

    • When it comes to racism and bigotry I would like to see an end to it. I’m not naïve enough to imagine that will happen (at least entirely) but as I’ve argued before, it is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech from a radical perspective also to use freedom of expression to challenge bigotry. I’ve no desire to eliminate bad taste jokes, just for people not to take them too seriously.

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