We live in an age when people can seem surprisingly keen to take offence. In an age of trigger warnings, no-platforming policies at university and endless synthetic outrage on Twitter, taking offence can often seem a way of closing down discussion and stifling debate.
Such was the topic explored superbly by Katie Stubbs in her speech for the semi-final of the Chrystall Prize, the annual GDST public speaking competition, which was held here at the Royal High last week and in which she triumphed.
Katie’s speech began with a quick history of the insult, from Roman one-liners via Shakespeare to some wonderfully barbed Churchillian put-downs. According to her, insults, although often cruel, are vehicles for human creativity and inventiveness.
But she quickly moved on to discuss the politicised nature of offence in our current climate. Referencing the recent storm of controversy about the Gillette ‘Best A Man Can Be’ campaign, she spoke with verve and passion about the way the men who claimed to be offended by the ad were actually pushing back against the #metoo movement. Too often, taking offence prevents freedom of thought. Universities were criticised by Katie for often failing to discuss controversial topics freely and fearlessly.
For me, Katie’s masterstroke came in the next stage of the speech. She linked the topic up with scientific progress. As she put it, ‘Someone once said that all scientific discoveries begin with giving offence.’ In other words, Galileo was ‘offensive’ in that he challenged prevailing orthodoxy. Ditto Darwin. According to Katie, a willingness to cause offence on an intellectual level turns out to be the great driver of human progress.
She ended by trying to draw lines in the sand. She related seeing the word ‘snowflake’ being used to insult millennials in a below-the-line daily Mail comment. She felt offended - but should she have been? ‘If the Daily Mail wants to label me a snowflake, well, I can live with that’, she concluded with a philosophical shrug. ‘It’s a price worth paying.’
Other speakers spoke with passion and eloquence too. Maddy Chilcott from Shrewsbury engaged wittily with the topic, ‘How important is your name?’ Alice Brancale from Howell’s chose an unnerving topic entitled ‘Are you sitting next to a psychopath or sociopath?’ (At this point I glanced nervously at the person sitting next to me - Mrs Duncan.) Olivia Keene from Oxford High gave a lambasting performance on the topic, ‘Is feminism going wrong?’ (answer - no) and Diya Batra from Northampton charmed us with a beguiling speech on the topic, ‘The creative shall inherit the earth.’ But it was Katie who stole the show.
Thanks must go to the three esteemed judges: Courtney Fleming, Museum Administrator of Beckford’s Tower; Madeline Toy, Head of Literature Programming at Bath Festivals; and Ian Waller of Bath & Wiltshire Parents Magazine. They praised Katie’s speech for its contemporary relevance and the way it worked as a speech and used rhetorical skill to make its points. Their feedback was very useful and will definitely help all the speakers think about what areas to work on.
In the past, we have come within a whisker of winning the Chrystal Prize, only to be pipped at the post in the final. As Katie heads to the final, held in Portsmouth on Friday 8 March, I can’t help wondering if this could be our year. We stand every chance – there can be no more formidable contestant than Katie. Let’s all cross our fingers. Watch this space.