"It's a Human Right to Be Offended": Irvine Welsh on Cancel Culture and His New Documentary

Johnny Davis
·17-min read
Photo credit: Lion TV
Photo credit: Lion TV

From Esquire

Irvine Welsh thinks there’s too many old cunts in the world, with too much to say for themselves – himself included.

Woah, that was offensive.

Or was it? After all, it’s exactly the sort of language we’d expect from Irvine Welsh. We’d be disappointed if he didn’t come out effing and jeffing. (If you prefer a milder author, please ask for one.)

Does offence rely on context? Is it art’s job to be offensive? If it is, is art no longer fit for purpose in this Stay Woke era? Are you even allowed to offend anyone in 2020?

It’s a thorny subject and one Welsh grapples with a clear head and an open mind in a new documentary, Offended by Irvine Welsh. He’s joined by an esteemed bunch of sympathisers, including Jake Chapman, of the art duo Jake and Dinos Chapman, known for their gruesome scenes of penis-nosed children, Nazi-uniformed soldiers and skeleton-filled battlegrounds, the agit-rapper M.I.A and the artist Sarah Maple, who's received death threats for her provocative paintings highlighting feminism and Islam. Welsh also gives sanitising a page of one of his own novels a go – clacking away at the keyboard to replace his character’s misogyny, racism, homophobia and derogatory language, line by line. Also the swearing.

“Ach,” he says, reviewing the newly clean draft. “It’s pretty fucking shite, isn’t it?”

He spoke to Esquire over Zoom, where he appeared dressed as Irvine Welsh – barking into his iPhone wearing a football tracksuit and an up-for-it grin. He was on fine form.

I think we know the answer to this, but why is Irvine Welsh a good fit to present a TV show about offending people?

Because I didn’t know. There’s no fun at all in doing something if you know all the answers. I wanted to use it as a learning experience for myself, primarily, to find out. I came at it in a kind of enquiring spirit. If I go on Twitter, I’m usually tweeting about things I’ve got an opinion about: it’s always ‘fuck you’ and talking shit. And I didn’t want to do that. We’ve lost that ability to look after each other and respect each other, and I wanted to make sure all these views were respected. Because they’re all different kinds of truths.

‘Cancel culture’ is one topic covered in Offended. Discuss

When people are punching up against bullies with objectionable views, who are rabble-rousers, it’s great to see them get 'cancelled'. On the other hand, when you see ordinary people losing their jobs for something they may have said, that was a spur of the moment, there’s an evil 1984 element to the whole thing. It’s intensified with Covid. People are grassing up their neighbours and their so-called friends. You think ‘This is not bringing out the best in people’. People are so angry and they want someone to blame. And there is no one to blame. But people want to be compensated in some way for the hurt that they feel.

JK Rowling was recently ‘cancelled’ for her supposed transphobia. As a fellow author-on-Twitter, should she have stayed out of it? It seems an impossible debate to get into

She’s from that era, that wave of feminism. And to an extent I sympathise. I think the broader issue is misogyny. There are vociferous people who have hijacked the trans movement and are hostile towards trans women and to transexual people. And they get way, way, way too much publicity. When people describe themselves as transexuals I’m always very sympathetic. When people describe themselves as trans women I’m less sympathetic. I think the definition of masculinity has to broaden. It shouldn’t be about men appropriating women’s space. It should be about ‘Why can’t men wear dresses?’, ‘Why can’t they wear makeup?’ Why should they conform to a very narrow view of masculinity? It’s masculinity that has to expand. Why do we categorise people by sex in that way? Why are we so obsessed by it? I fundamentally believe that women do have a right to their own space. They have a struggle that’s ongoing. You can’t just lump people in together that have got diverse struggles. Gay people have got a very different struggle from transsexual people, and women have had a very different struggle from them. I wonder if there needs to be this dichotomy between both sides of the argument. I don’t think there would be if toxic misogynists hadn’t inserted themselves into the debate.

You talk to Dinos Chapman, of Jake and Dinos Chapman fame. Their art is deliberately offensive. It's also very funny. It's offensive humour. Laughter is surely the right response to their sculptures of Nazi zombie soldiers shagging, for instance

There’s got to be a place for silliness. The one that really got me were Hitler’s water colours [If Hitler Had Been A Hippy How Happy Would We Be, 2008]. Buying Hitler’s watercolours and putting rainbows on them. That’s a fucking brilliant idea.

Photo credit: <
Photo credit: <

The offensive scenes in your books are often darkly funny, too. The tapeworm that acts as the protagonist’s conscience in Filth, for example. There's a reason you chose a tapeworm and not a bunny rabbit. To gross readers out

Yeah. I was quite grossed out when I read tapeworms can grow up to 40 feet in the human body. It’s quite a horrible thing. And so many people have them and don’t know. A bunny rabbit might have been interesting, actually. If he had a pet rabbit and he was talking to that. The one thing that he actually loves and looks after. I like the tapeworm. I like the parasitical nature of the tapeworm. And the idea that the tapeworm is much more sentient than he is, is quite a nice thing to go with.

In the programme you mention that people got very upset by the dog torture scene in your novel Glue. Your response was to write a dog torture scene in subsequent books

If it’s offending people, you think to yourself ‘Why is this happening?’ I just want to explore it more. I want more letters from people saying they’re offended, and why. It’s great! There’s got to be an element of mischief in the whole process.

It's because people care more about animals than humans, presumably

Yeah, it is. I care about animals as well. And there are some animals that I care about more than humans, there’s no question about that. But you have to value human life, you have to put that first. It’s quite a strange thing that people will react to a dog torture much more than a violent rape.

Why is that?

Again, it’s something quite horrible about the way women are still treated in society. It’s the way the male psyche is embedded in culture. If you look at the Weinstein stuff and #MeToo and everything that’s followed on, there’s a superstructure of values that allow that behaviour to operate.

You also look at Dread Scott’s What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag (1989), an artwork that invites visitors to stand on the Stars and Stripes, a prospect that apparently renders it too offensive to display

It would be a security risk, for sure. People can’t really express themselves in that way at the moment. When I’m across there [Welsh has been resident of Chicago since 2009] and I go to baseball games I leave when they do the national anthem. In the 10 years that I’ve lived in America I’ve watched the whole culture become more and more militarised. They never used to have national anthems at all those sporting events. Something was brewing away in the culture. The racism about having a black president was coming to the fore and a lot of people were thinking ‘This is somehow un-American because black people are meant to be subjugated and now we have one as the President, so let’s assert these American values again – which are unresolved Civil War racist values’. And this has gone absolutely crazy with Trump.

How are you with trolls?

It doesn’t really bother me. I’ve never blocked anybody at all. You can’t really engage or debate with anyone on Twitter. So I don’t even try.

Have you agreed with the negative comments?

Yeah! All the time. If you’re just banging thoughts out, you’re going to make a cunt of yourself. But you don’t have to engage with it. Why should other people care if I’m offended by something? I should just grow a thicker skin.

Photo credit: &lt;
Photo credit: <

That’s one of the ideas in the programme: when it comes down to it, what's so wrong about being offended?

Yes. It’s a human right. We have the right to be offended. We’re in a world where people are trying to avoid pain and trying to avoid feeling uncomfortable. And you can’t avoid pain. Pain is one of the best things you can have in life. There’s no growth without it. You’ve got to be hurt and dust yourself off and learn from all these different experiences. A lot of [that attitude] comes from the anti-bullying thing. People don’t like bullies and tyrants – and that’s a great thing. But you have to have hurt as well.

When was the last time you were offended by something?

Every time I look at the football scores and Hearts have won, I feel massively offended. But there’s nothing I can do about that.

Do you self-censor at all? Have you ever thought ‘That’s a bit much’?

If a book is adapted for screen or stage, sometimes you look at the adaptation and think ‘Fuck, this is a bit heavy’. I remember when Marabou Stork Nightmares was made into a stage play at the Citizens Theatre. I’d written this horrible rape scene but when it was on stage, actually acted out, it was much more horrific. It went on for so long that I didn’t know where to put my face. You can’t actually offend yourself but usually what happens when you write a scene, there’s a level of obstruction that you have as writer to protect yourself. But the audience don’t get that. They don’t have any control or filter.

Do you think that ultimately everyone be allowed to say whatever they like?

Yeah, I do think so. If something’s being censored you’ve got to think ‘Who is doing the censoring? Why are they doing it? And what power are we investing in people who do that?’ Having everything out there can be quite hurtful and damaging but in a way it’s the least hurtful or damaging [option]. The only thing I would draw a line at would be abuse. If you’re inciting abuse against other people then you don’t deserve to have a platform.

What about the recent incident in France, where a teacher was beheaded for showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed? Ironically, a class on free speech

I’ve no tolerance at all for people who worry about religious symbols being denigrated. A religion should have a strong enough belief system to put itself above and beyond that kind of thing.

On the other hand, you interview the comedian and actor Andrew Doyle, who mentions an actor friend who was asked by her agent why she hadn’t tweeted in support of Black Lives Matter. And told her it was compulsory to do so

It’s a generational thing and a social media thing and [it comes from that] pile-on culture where everyone has to be right on. And if you’re not supporting anything and you’re not vocal about it, it’s seen as something sinister. There’s all sorts of arguments why you shouldn’t jump on every cause. For one thing you’ll lose credibility. For another how much is it just a knee jerk reaction and how much do you really feel and care and know about something?

Wouldn’t we all be better off if we deleted social media?

Yes, we would. Definitely.

Do you think you’d have been cancelled in the 1990s?

Well I wasn’t! You could get away with a lot more then.

Pre-social media, though

Oh, if we had social media back then I would have been, yeah. No question.

Is there anything you’ve written you regret now?

No. The thing about fiction is that it gives you licence to explore thoughts and values and themes and ideas that are not necessarily things that you hold yourself. It’s a bit like doing this documentary. It’s a learning thing. If I write a book like Filth then I want to explore racism and misogyny and how it affects a character. I’m not going to have a nice, Goody Two-Shoes liberal kind of person. I’m going to have a total racist. I want to understand the reactions it causes in people, the toxicity of it and what it does to the individual. How it debases the individual.

You discuss the right to inhabit characters from different backgrounds with the author Nadifa Mohamed. This is another contemporary concern: how to write diversely. And even if that’s allowed

Yeah, and it is an anti-art thing. People don’t get the distinction between politics and social life and art and creative life. The term ‘creative’ has been so abused. It’s someone who’s got a marketing proposal. It’s, like, ‘the creatives are in town!’ You have to claim the right to be an artist and just do what you’ve got to do.

Photo credit: Sky
Photo credit: Sky

Is there a new book on the way?

What I do is I write about four books at once and then wait until one gets critical mass and go with that. There’s one that I’ve finished but I want to bring it out later, maybe a couple of years down the line. There’s another one I’m working on that I want to bring out first.

Will the Trainspotting crew be back?

I’ve been writing stories for years about them, down the line. It’s just thinking about how it’s best to bring them back. Is it a novel? Is it a short story? I have the stories there, basically.

It’s obligatory to ask you about drugs. Apparently you currently have a penchant for DMT, the natural hallucinogen. What can you tell us about that?

Well, it’s not a party drug. It’s an educative drug – you basically learn about what happens when you die. It opens the pituitary gland and you have this kind of experience when you’re in the antechamber between life and death. Hopefully you don’t break right through! But you do get to learn things. It is life-changing. It’s changed my view about the existence of life after death. I didn’t believe in it at all. But now I think it probably does exist, you know.

You see stuff?

Yes. I flew into the Sun and looked down on the Earth and saw little gnomes and kind of chatted to them. They took me around and they showed me the place. The walls fell away on either side. I didn’t have ‘The Last Supper’, which is quite common for a lot of people [users report being seated at the table with Jesus and the apostles]. I’ve done it four times now. That’s probably enough.

Is DMT different to ayahuasca?

It’s related to ayahuasca. I’ve done ayahuasca ceremonies in Brazil, on the beaches, and it is much more avowedly spiritual and ritualistic. It’s about connecting with other people and bonding and all that, whereas DMT, that level of concentration where you’re just sitting on the couch and you get 90 seconds of going into that place, it’s much more of a purely experimental drug. I’ve connected with so many people in my life I’m not really bothered about connecting with people on a third world beach now. I want to have a party, or I want to learn something about the self now.

Ayahuasca seems to be to 2020 what ecstasy was to the 1990s

I think so, yeah. People want the answers to the world. Ayahuasca’s about emotional cleansing for people and about the letting go of all the things that have been blocking them or holding them up or damaging them, or post-traumatic stress. I’m sure it has applications for those things, so fair play.

Have you written about it?

I haven’t, no.

Why not?

One of the things that I’m really worried about – this is quite an embarrassing thing to say – I’m not fucked up enough to get a lot from these drugs. The people who get tons from them, horrible things have happened to them. They’ve had an abusive childhood, or they’ve had really massive ongoing addiction problems that have been the result of some kind of previous abuse that they haven’t been able to rectify themselves. It’s not just stupidity or hedonism. It actually does people good who have been through these things. But for a hedonist like me it just becomes like another trip.

Are you optimistic about 2021?

Yeah! I’m always optimistic. You’ve got to be. Once people get used to all this shit [ie: Covid], they’ll stop being depressed and start having fun again.

What should our government have done differently this year?

All the signs were there, they should have got on top of [Covid] straightaway and they didn’t, they just fannied around. And you can’t play catchup with this thing, you know? If you look at what happened in New Zealand they just got right into it, straightaway. Our government just farted and fannied around. Didn’t go to any meetings, shook hands and ended up in intensive care. It was like an Ealing comedy of fucking idiots running the show. But you’ve got people in government who don’t really want to govern. All they want to do is make money and throw out contracts to the private sector. When it comes to the art of statecraft they’re lost, they don’t know the first thing. David Davies took three years to do Brexit deals. ‘How dare they force me to work?’ And as a result we’re going to be much more fucked by Brexit than we have been by Covid.

You can almost see them thinking ‘This isn’t what I signed up for’, can't you?

They signed up to make money and to look after lobbyists and to hive off all the resources from the community into the pockets of their friends. They don’t want to govern. And it’s taken a pandemic to actually make government think ‘We do actually have to go through the motions of being responsible for these annoying bastards we call citizens’.

Will Boris stay the distance, do you think?

He’ll be off in spring. He’s fucking useless. He’s just been useless at everything he’s done and he’s been exalted and pushed into this job and it’s a massive triumph of stupidity over any substance whatsoever. He’ll go but the only thing is, he’ll be replaced by another fucking arsehole. There’s no bottom to this particular pit, basically.

Offended by Irvine Welsh is on Sky Arts and Freeview Channel 11 at 1opm on 17 November

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