In praise of insult

You have no right to be free from insult. Indeed, sometimes you may deserve to be insulted. Let us take a case that brings this into sharp focus: the Tory chief whip who lost his job because… well, we still don’t know exactly why because it now turns out that what the police claimed at the time wasn’t true. And maybe he should have lost his job: I don’t know. But one of the underlying assumptions throughout seems to have been that nobody should ever be sworn at. And that is flatly false. Sometimes people deserve to be sworn at. People in power deserve it when they stupidly, arrogantly or indifferently muck up our lives, something they do routinely. They deserve it most especially when they misuse their authority, such as when they do so to display their power by make someone’s life worse or for the purpose of getting  their own back on someone who resists their misuse of power.

In the case in point, and as I understand it, it is not disputed, the Tory in question, Mr Mitchell, worked in Downing St and was accustomed to departing Downing St by cycling through the main gates.  However, on the day in question the police refused to open those gates, thereby making him go through the palaver of dismounting and struggling with his bike through the side gate. Not a big issue, perhaps, but on the other hand, a deliberate act of making Mr Mitchell’s life worse. It is possible, and I don’t know that it isn’t true, that the police had a particular reason for obstructing him on that day. In that case they could no doubt have said, ‘sorry, but we can’t today because of …’. I have not heard that any such thing was said so I assume they had no reason. This was therefore a mere display of their power to make his life worse. They therefore deserved to be sworn at.

Now I want to contrast this act of making his life worse, which has attracted no opprobrium, with the opprobrium heaped on Mr Mitchell for his alleged swearing at them. Here is how this ought to be seen: they deliberately made his life worse; all he did was swear at them for doing so. Perhaps it was unwise for him to do so, perhaps he had had a bad day. But so what? People rub each other up the wrong way all the time. It’s no big deal but if we must choose between them  the presumption must be that the police were the greater malefactor: they were the sticks and stones, he the mere worder.

It is because of the evident triviality of this interaction that so much turned on whether Mr Mitchell called the police ‘plebs’. Actually, that’s not really true, it is merely a truth of politics. Nevertheless, what happened next was certainly a display of power for the purpose of the police getting their own back on someone who resisted their misuse of power. And very successful that display was too. Mr Mitchell was sacked and it has taken more than a year for the dishonesty deployed by the police in that display to be exposed.

This was a act of bullying, certainly, but it was much worse than that. We should recognise the malice and the corruption of power. We should be especially worried by it because if the police think they can get away with doing this to the chief Tory whip it shows what they must already be getting away with doing to the rest of us. Just hope you’re not the one to say something to a policeman that he doesn’t like.

It is because of the ease with which the police can misuse their power to make our life worse and to get their own back that we insist they have good grounds for deploying that power. When they do not have good grounds their deployment of power is illegitimate and we should not penalize people for resisting that deployment; most especially, we should not penalize people for resisting that deployment in a way the police find unpalatable. So let me put it bluntly: If the police fuck you up without good reason you have a right to tell them to fuck off. If the law doesn’t recognise that the law’s an ass.

Finally, let us contrast this with how it would be among a free, tolerant and robust people. It would rather be understood that the common hurly burly of the life of adults must not be interfered with by the state. Adults are not delicate flowers incapable of bearing the heat of insult. Sometimes we deserve to be told off for the stupid fools we are and the stupid things we do… and sometimes not. It may not be pleasant. It may sometimes be unfair. But when so told off we can answer back, accept it, or let it slide as water off a duck’s back. What we cannot do is punish the person giving insult. There is no ground to run whining to the law and it is contemptible that we have law pandering to such whining. There is no need for a law against insult.

It has been my experience that defending robust free speech is as catnip to a cat: people find themselves immediately compelled to call me all the names under the sun. Please feel free to do so—but know that I knew you would.

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3 Responses to In praise of insult

  • Andrew says:

    Reading your post without any knowledge of the events involving Andrew Mitchell I could not help but feel in sympathy with you as I’ve witnessed unbearable misuses and abuses of power in many circumstances. However I am not so sure that, in the case in point, Mitchell was really being victimized. Do you know details supporting your claim that it was, in the circumstances, a misuse or abuse of power to ask him to get off her bicycle?

    Besides, it’s often interesting when assessing this kind of dialectic to know whether the reply was proportionate to the alleged offense. If it was not, there may still be ground for blaming Mitchell.

  • THEEB ALKAHATANI says:

    “If the police fuck you up without good reason you have a right to tell them to fuck off. If the law doesn’t recognise that the law’s an ass”

    Such words should be as a label at the entrance of all police stations, especially in the Developing Countries, where such illegitimate power is deployable.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    It’s interesting that Dr Shackel sees the police as the authority figures in this episode, given that Mitchell’s tantrum was apparently due to feeling that the cops ought to be deferring to his higher authority as a Government bigwig. As far as I’m aware, the police refusal to open the main gates was due to them following instructions that the gates should only be opened if strictly necessary. Mitchell was able to dismount and use the pedestrian gate, which was surely no major imposition. If you and I would be expected to wheel our bikes through the pedestrian gate, why should an exception be made for Mitchell? If the cops decided they didn’t have the authority to make this exception, that’s an example of them keeping within their remit, not throwing their weight around. Their subsequent behaviour – apparently telling fibs to the media – certainly appears to have been reprehensible, but that wasn’t why they were sworn at.

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