The Politics of Indignation
The Politics of Indignation featured Australian writer Richard King, author of On Offence, in conversation with journalist Finlay Macdonald (right) about our culture of offence-taking, particularly in the media and politics. It was a lively, fascinating discussion that I really enjoyed.
King’s thesis is that the act of publicly taking offence has become a toxic presence in our democracy, shutting down valuable arguments where it should be the start of the debate. He spoke about how offence-taking has become part of our political currency, with politicians being rewarded for being seen to be offended with extra media coverage and headlines.
The reason we have freedom of speech, says King, is to protect the search for truth. And it is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to offend. He spoke scathingly about how a sense of victimhood has become part of our cultural self-awareness, where ‘me being offended’ is automatically ‘your problem’. King also criticised the act of being offended on behalf of others, the way the middle classes can be patronisingly protective of “the marginalised”.
There was an interesting discussion of the place of satire: the act of being deliberately offensive in a humorous manner in order to make a serious point. It reminded me of the conversation yesterday between satirist Steve Braunias and The Civilian’s Ben Uffindell. Both Uffindell and Macdonald made the point that satire in New Zealand is difficult because too many people don’t get it. Macdonald said this means that journalists get tired of being misunderstood and simply stop using satire – and this has the effect of “making us all so bloody pious”.
Of course, these days, no discussion of offence is complete without mentioning Twitter. King bemoaned the fact that Twitter, which was originally touted as being the great, international conversation-enabler, has instead become a place where vital debate is shut down. “140 characters is enough to convey strength of feeling, but not reasoned argument.”
This was a fascinating session and really got me thinking about how feelings of offence affect my own behaviour. Good on King for bringing up a topic that we all need to consider.
Capes and Tights was my last session at the 2014 WORD Christchurch Writers Festival, and it was a wonderful note to end on: lively fun with an infectious passion for books and story.
Cartoonist Dylan Horrocks (right) chaired a panel discussion on superhero comics with filmmaker Jonathan King, author Karen Healey and philosopher Damon Young. All four spoke with humour and real feeling about their love for superhero comics, and the different ways they had read them at different stages of their lives. For example, Young spoke movingly about being an angry teen wanting to see his own rage reflected in the characters, needing to see vengeance as noble.
No discussion of superhero comics is complete without an examination of violence. King pointed out that, since 9/11, US superhero films tend to show seriousness by having entire city blocks destroyed and people and rubble covered in dust. Young spoke about how articulate violence in comics can express character and play a valuable role in storytelling.
I was very struck by Healey’s thesis that all comics are fanfiction (she has written her PhD on this topic). All comics are built on characters, situations, stories and artwork that have come before them – there is no definitive first story or ‘right’ version. I was also interested to learn that, in this context, ‘canon’ means ‘having the official masthead’ (eg. of DC Comics or Marvel).
Horrocks asked all the participants what superpower they’d have if they could: Healey said invincibility, Young said telekinesis, and King chose the ability to fly. Horrocks said he’d had invisibility, and spoke very poignantly about his idea of his invisible self continuing after his death, observing the world.
The session ended with Horrocks inviting Rachael King, one of the WORD organisers, to come and receive a very well deserved round of applause. Horrocks praised WORD 2014 for being the year’s best literary festival – bring on 2016!
by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher