Sometimes we need to be offended

By Andrew Adie

Chris Whitty being jostled in St James’ Park, the shocking images of the BBC’s Nick Watt being pursued into Downing Street by an anti-lockdown mob and the infamous storming of the US Capitol Building by Trump protestors are arguably different sides of the same coin.

They showcase a world that can treat alternative views, nuance and debate as something that has to be closed, cancelled, ignored or marginalized. In some cases by ‘the mob’.

While protest isn’t new, the ability to protest and to collect likeminded individuals together to shut down debate and discussions that doesn’t align with your world view is new in the sense of the scale, speed and ease with which it can be done. Social media is often the organizing channel for this.

I’m not suggesting that all social media or ‘real-world’ protests or even ‘mobs’ are bad. I’m also not suggesting that anyone should tolerate toxic, discriminatory or abusive viewpoints. We shouldn’t, we need to shine a light into those dark corners and we need to prevent offensive, intolerant and discriminatory views being broadcast, of course we do. But there is a line between cancelling viewpoints that are toxic because they discriminate and are offensive and cancelling viewpoints because you disagree with them. I sometimes fear that we have crossed that line. 

Social media provides a valuable forum for debate but it is also a conduit for cancelled culture. The platforms can be a strong grass-roots force for opening up issues and involving more people in discussions but the onus is clearly on the user to sanity check what they’re hearing and pause before wading in.

I believe we need to raise our power of debate and understanding beyond just cancelling viewpoints that run counter to our own. I too loathe some of the views expressed online and in the world around us. I like to think of myself as a liberal democrat (small l and d) but I don’t believe I have a right not to be offended.

In fact as a professional communicator I actively seek to be offended at times as you can’t communicate with nuance unless you understand all the voices and viewpoints that surround a debate.

This isn’t about being the archetypal ‘bleeding heart liberal’ it’s about being pragmatic. I don’t know what I should be shocked about, frightened by or fight for and against unless I understand the detail first hand and listen. Having the arguments filtered through a social media mob is not particularly helpful.

Over the years,  we have advised numerous organisations who have had a huge range of corporate and personal issues where the power of the mob turns on the company or individuals behind it, passing instant judgement and causing huge distress and difficulties in its wake, often with a very partial understanding of the facts. It is always deeply frustrating but its equally a professional challenge, an argument that you seek to influence and change by showcasing facts and opinions that seek to shine a light on the situation from your client’s perspective. You expect a response but debate is what makes democratic society turn.

This week is London Climate Action Week and that too turned my thoughts to the voice of the mob. Scientists and environmentalists have fought for years to showcase the science behind climate change, to persuade people to take it seriously, to push through being labelled as cranks and hippies. They’ve broadly succeeded but their world view is still criticized. 

Now that the weight of popular opinion is behind them, should the scientists and others shut down and cancel the climate change deniers? Of course not but why would they? The arguments have been made, the fault lines exposed, the world left to take a considered view point.

As we look at people like Chris Whitty and Nick Watt, we should be shocked by the treatment meted out to them. It’s only one step away from storming the Capitol and regardless of your view on Donald Trump’s role in that, the mob was the people. 

All of us have a right not to be abused and discriminated against, I not sure we should expect to have a right not to be offended, we just need to see the offence as energy that fuels change.