International conference: call for papers


Understanding Offence: Delimiting the (Un)sayable


Institute of Advanced Study, 21-23 March 2024


Organisers: Helen Fenwick (Durham Law School), Patrick Zuk (School of Modern Languages and Cultures) 

Keynote speakers: Stefan Collini (University of Cambridge), Jacob Rowbottom (University of Oxford)

Advisory committee: Kevin Bartig (Michigan State University), Peter Coe (University of Birmingham), Claudia Nitschke (Durham University), Ian O’Flynn (Newcastle University), Valentina Sandu-Dediu (New Europe College, Bucharest)


The conference organisers gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the British Academy.




A striking feature of contemporary public life is a pervasive preoccupation with the proper boundaries of acceptable speech and behaviour. A number of factors have lent this issue increased urgency—amongst them, prominent social justice campaigns (notably, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements) and widespread anxieties about societal cohesion and the future of democracy. One result has been a heightened attention to language and modes of interaction to ensure that these are sufficiently respectful and appropriately sensitive to difference. The operative assumption is that we have a collective obligation to abstain from words or deeds that might be found offensive and injurious to others’ dignity.

While most of us would readily assent to this as a guiding principle of conduct, it is by no means straightforward in its application. Much hinges on what we understand to constitute ‘offence’—a highly problematic term which has received surprisingly little sustained critical attention. In plural societies, conflicting understandings of what constitutes unacceptably offensive speech and behaviour will inevitably arise, and understandings continue to evolve as attitudes change. Avoiding offence is not always possible—or, arguably, even desirable. In a democracy, objections to offensive discourse or conduct must be balanced against a range of other considerations—including the need to safeguard freedom of expression (including artistic and academic freedom) and the right to protest, and to counteract tendencies that could be socially divisive or lead to the oppression of one group by another.

This multidisciplinary conference is organised in conjunction with a large-scale cross-faculty research project sponsored by Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study. It is envisioned as a forum for critical reflection on issues pertaining to offence and the challenges that it presents to society.


Proposals for panel sessions and individual papers are invited from researchers working in any discipline.

Potential topics include:

  • offence as a phenomenon: giving and taking offence
  • psychological, behavioural, and communicative aspects of offence
  • historical, cultural, philosophical, and anthropological perspectives on offence
  • challenges inherent in attempts to formulate serviceable normative definitions of offence that can underpin legal and other regulatory frameworks (e.g. codes of practice)
  • historical and contemporary efforts of the law to strike a balance between protecting free speech and regulating unacceptably offensive forms of expression (e.g. the UK Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2022-23)
  • offence in contemporary social and political life
  • regulating offensive content on digital media
  • offence and research culture
  • offence in educational contexts
  • offence and health—including understandings of the potentially harmful effects of offensive speech and behaviours on well-being
  • offence and the arts—including issues pertaining to historical artworks (including visual artworks, literary texts, and music) which offend against contemporary sensibilities
  • the effects of anxieties about causing offence on artistic creativity and on cultural life more generally
  • issues pertaining to offence in the museum and cultural heritage sector
  • offence and the business world
  • management and organisational perspectives on offence

Proposals for individual papers of 20 minutes’ duration should be submitted in the form of a 250-word abstract accompanied by a 100-word biographical note and contact information. Proposals for panel sessions should include a 300-word statement explaining the panel’s rationale as well as individual paper abstracts.

The organisers welcome proposals from researchers at any career stage, including postgraduate researchers. The working language of the conference will be English.

A limited number of bursaries will be available to assist graduate students and presenters without access to institutional support. If you wish to be considered for a bursary, you should indicate this in your covering letter when submitting your abstract. Please be aware that we are unlikely to be in a position to cover participants’ costs in full.

Proposals should be submitted by e-mail to by Friday 17 November 2023. Notifications of acceptance will be sent by Monday 11 December 2023.

Informal enquiries can be directed to Patrick Zuk at the same e-mail address.