Offence 'a form of political currency'

01:20, Aug 18 2014
Richard King
DEBUT APPEARANCE: Richard King, outrageously, is visiting New Zealand for the first time.

Author Richard King will be in Christchurch this month for the WORD Writers and Readers Festival. He tells Beck Eleven we are offended far too easily.

In his book, author Richard King argues it is all too easy to give offence. Not only that, but we practically leap at the opportunity to take it.

On Offence: The politics of indignation is King's first book. Using popular culture examples, he explains how the cycle of giving and taking offence works to shut down debate and democracy.

"The determination to give offence matches the determination to take it," he writes.

"You have to keep the heart on fire but the mind on ice."


King, who is English and lives in Fremantle, just south of Perth in Western Australia, will be in Christchurch for the WORD Writers and Readers Festival at the end of this month.

As an opening example in the book, he recalls Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd taking great offence at comedian Robin Williams for describing Aussies as "English rednecks". Rudd then suggested Williams might want to look more closely at the citizens of Alabama, which in turn offended the mayor of Alabama and so the squabble developed and was duly reported in the media.

"Newspapers have less money these days," King says. "And let's face it, it's cheap, easy copy and it's copy people want to read. Some sections of the media almost drum up offence. You don't have to pay a reporter to go to the Ukraine, these types of stories keep generating."

Among other things, the book examines political correctness, an American pastor bent on burning the Quran, the Tea Party, religious and racist battles.

Finding examples for the book were everywhere.

"If you try to keep abreast of them all, you find yourself sinking beneath them. Offence and indignation are fantastically ubiquitous."

One only need turn to social media or an online news story to find outrage.

"Comments hang on the end of them like seaweed. It doesn't matter what an article is on, comments turn very abusive. Road rage is gone and internet rage is here.

"I love the internet, I don't mean to come across as a crusty old guy but there's this idea that you have maximum narcissism combined with a kind of mob mentality on social media. It creates a framing reason why people haven't quite arrived at a way of talking in a meaningful way.

"I mean, I get offended all the time, there are days where from the minute I turn the radio on in the morning to when I turn the TV off at night I am in apoplectic rage but what you have to do is admit your feelings, ask wether they are justified and think about what is wrong.

"I mean, if you're not offended regularly you should probably check your pulse but it has to be the beginning of debate not the end."

As New Zealanders approach the general election, much of what King says about offence shutting down debate will start to ring a bell.

"The taking and giving of offence is a form of political currency. These days somebody only has to say something is offensive and that is deemed to be their whole argument although no real argument has actually been made.

"The way offence and offendedness is whipped up and weaponised strikes me as being almost corrosive of genuine civility.

"It ends up being more like 'you have been offensive to me, therefore I am going to grant myself leave to something incredibly offensive back'.

"Offence is bad for democracy because it is treated as an argument in itself."

He brings up Julia Gillard's misogyny speech in which she delivered a well-articulate verbal slap to Tony Abbot.

"He deserved that. She gave him what for but on that day her government actually took away quite a lot of money from single parents, most of whom are women.

"I would have liked to have seen more on that but which story goes viral? It's not the women doing it tough, it's the offence so it can often mask the real debate."

The cover of King's book carries a compliment from Clive James and it is clear King is a fan of James' style and obvious delight in playing with language. Despite dealing with some serious topics, On Offence is filled with humour and beautifully turned phrases.

Of all the outrageous things King brings up during this interview, he admits this trip to Christchurch for the WORD festival will be his first time in New Zealand.

The Press