THERE’S still teeth marks in the copy of Last Exit to Brooklyn I bought aged 18. I remember lying in bed in my university halls reading Hubert Selby Jnr’s novel and being so outraged by the violence, sexual abuse, and humiliation heaped upon characters that I cracked. I bit the book – so hard my teeth hurt – and hurled it across the room. I swore I’d never look at that disgusting pile of trash again.

It’s lucky I didn’t chuck the book out the window because the next day I picked it up, finished it, and realised it’s probably one of the greatest works of 20th century literature. I’ve read that novel 20 times. I’d be a poorer person – emotionally, psychologically, intellectually – without having read Brooklyn, and Selby’s other magnificently transgressive works.

READ MORE: Opinion: Iain Macwhirter: Sturgeon's economic recovery won’t be about de-growth but jobs, jobs jobs

Years ago, I was at a festival for a showing of Funny Games – Michael Haneke’s psychological arthouse horror film. The host said that if anyone in the audience could watch it to the end without hiding their eyes or leaving the cinema, then there was something wrong with them. I snorted. As a connoisseur of shock, I wasn’t going to be terrorised by some Austrian indie movie.

I was wrong. About half way through, as other audience members fled, I turned my eyes away from the screen so I didn’t have to look at what was happening. Years later, Funny Games remains, for me, as raw and powerful an artistic statement about the violence and nihilism inherent in all human beings as I’ve ever seen. It’s a work of great art which testifies directly about the darkness in every soul.

So I’ve spent a lot of my life being shocked and outraged and, if it doesn’t sound too contradictory, that’s been hugely beneficial to me as a thinking human being. Shock and offence have helped me grow steadily as a person. Shock and offence have allowed me to explore a side of humanity that doesn’t – thankfully, hopefully – exist within me: cruelty, violence, bigotry, hate. Shock and offence have taken me by the hand and shown me what suffering and humiliation really mean – when again, thankfully, hopefully, my life has been relatively free from such pain.

The world is big; people are small. As a journalist, I’ve wanted to explore as much of this huge world as possible to understand the planet I’m living on. As a reader, viewer, theatre goer, art lover, I also want to explore as much of the inner world as possible too – in all its glory and awfulness. That means for every Jane Austen, I need a Hubert Selby Jnr.

My writing as a novelist is drawn to this exploration of humanity’s darkest traits. Why do we do such terrible things? That question cannot be answered without risking some degree of shock, outrage or offence. A work of art which explores transgression or cruelty doesn’t by necessity have to outrage in order to truly probe what it means to be human, but it inevitably will outrage some people because of the territory into which it dares tread.

I believe to be human we need to accept shock and offence as a necessary part of existence, great art, and personal growth.

However, we live in a world where shock and offence are becoming increasingly unacceptable – where shock is deemed something to be shunned, banned, silenced … cancelled. I can only see this as a diminishment of our shared humanity.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have rightly shaken the western world. Endemic racism is being confronted and bigotry’s days feel numbered. But amid this righteous fury, there’s been some great foolishness.

Gone with the Wind was removed from HBO after complaints over racial stereotyping. Personally, I’ve always felt the film was quite shocking to my modern eyes. Even as a child its representation of black characters, like Mammy, made me uncomfortable. But does it outrage me so much I want it banned? No. Firstly, I wouldn’t ban anything unless its content was illegal. Secondly, I’m aware the film was made in 1939. Back then, most white people were racist – even nice white people. So the film is of its time – that alone makes it culturally noteworthy. It also tells a story set in a much different period, with attitudes much different to ours: the American Civil War, a battle over slavery and white supremacy.

Gone with the Wind is a cultural artefact. It should no more be cancelled than Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, because of the way women are treated in the play. I don’t have the temerity to stand in judgement over previous generations, because I know one day we, the people of 2020, will be judged harshly for our views by generations to come. I’m also interested in learning about how those previous generations thought. If I cancel their art, I can’t do that.

I didn’t shed much of a tear when Little Britain was removed from streaming services because of its portrayal of black characters. The show was nasty and sneered at everyone – the white working class, ethnic minorities, the disabled. Still, I wouldn’t cancel it for its content. I just wouldn’t watch it because it’s unfunny and embarrassing. In years to come it’ll be a cultural artefact like Love Thy Neighbour.

However, the line gets blurry when we come to issues like The League of Gentlemen, which was pulled from Netflix because one character wears blackface. Blackface is an obscenity. I cringed at it growing up, on programmes like The Black and White Minstrel Show, which was appalling even in the early 70s. But The League of Gentleman character in question, Papa Lazarou, is an absurdity not a racial stereotype. He’s neither black nor white – he’s some strange alien creature, if anything. Viewers know the character isn’t a representation of a black person. He doesn’t exist in any reality we know. It’s never a good idea to analyse a joke, but the gag isn’t about race. Papa Lazarou, like all characters in The League of Gentlemen, is fundamentally surreal – there’s no meaning beyond the urge to make us laugh. It’s Pythonesque silliness with no sinister subtext.

And that’s the problem – we read subtext today where none is intended. We also seem to have forgotten how to read a joke. UKTV removed The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers. Anyone who’s watched it will know that Basil Fawlty is being mocked for xenophobia – there’s no celebration of it. The scene with Fawlty goose-stepping and shouting about the war was shocking when it first appeared – primarily because we all knew then that such attitudes still existed, and here they were being sent up in grotesque fashion.

If satire is going to work, it must mimic the voice and attitudes of those it wishes to satirise. One can imagine so much of Spitting Image which mercilessly lampooned those in power during the 80s being seen as too shocking, too offensive, for today’s tastes. So we live in an era almost supine when it comes to satire. Writers self-censor for fear of being cancelled. That’s not good for art, or society. Nothing hurts the powerful as much as laughter. But today, we’re hesitant about how we make people laugh in case we give offence, and so the powerful escape the sting of satire.

We saw the same issue – the same snowballing effect – during the height of the MeToo campaign. MeToo rightly declared war on misogyny, sexual harassment and inequality. Like BLM, never was a movement more needed. But like all protest movements these days, there was a small minority – but very vocal, particularly on social media – who seemed incapable of proportion. And so we’d the absurdity of men like Matt Damon being spoken of in the same breath as Harvey Weinstein. Damon had said: "I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behaviour. And we're going to have to figure – you know, there's a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn't be conflated, right?”

Right. But Damon became a figure of hate. Demanding the removal of confederate flags or statues of slave owners is right and just – though I’d say such objects should be placed in museums to be studied. However, being angry over a monkey on the front of the Coco Pops box undermines the important battles that are being fought. Amid the BLM protests, former Labour MP, Fiona Onasanya, who was jailed for lying to police, tweeted at Kelloggs asking “why Rice Krispies have three white boys representing the brand and Coco Pops have a monkey?”.

As someone who’s pretty much your standard definition of a liberal-leftie, this kind of debate worries me considerably. I fear it opens up the fight against racism, misogyny and homophobia to ridicule. If we allow ourselves to become figures of fun – ludicrously unable to weigh matters proportionally – we won’t win any arguments. It gives opponents a chance to laugh and say ‘if they think Coco Pops is offensive, why should we take them seriously on anything?’. Furthermore, it divides the left. Intelligent, liberal folk are put off and it leads to purity purges. The left turns on itself, when it should focus its concerns on the right, and addressing matters of real inequality.

There are many, many right-wing snowflakes out there who scream outrage when their flag, country, monarch, values, traditions, church, or army is mocked. That’s always been the case. The right is historically the part of the political spectrum which takes most offence.

But the left-right divide over shock and offence has changed in recent years. The left has more than caught up with the right. In fact, we appear to have completely lost our sense of humour. The left was once the place to go for a defence of freedom of speech. Now – and I struggle to process this political and cultural change – it’s the right which defends free speech, and the left which attacks the liberty to speak as you feel fit.

Alternative comedy flourished in the 80s by spitting offence straight in the face of Margaret Thatcher's government. Today, most alternative comedians would be booed off if they reprised their greatest routines.

Bill Hicks woke me up to the truth about America’s role in the world through his comedy. As a teenager, I learned about the US’s shady foreign policy dealings through Hicks, long before journalists clued me up. But Hicks was also a shock-machine. His views on pornography or his "Goat Boy" routine – framed by skits in favour of legalising drugs, and against racism and misogyny – would be cancelled in a heartbeat today.

Cancel culture has mostly invaded our screens. It’s yet to really make itself felt in literature, on the stage or in the art gallery. So there’s still safe spaces where those of us who intellectually need a little shock can go.

In 2016, I visited an exhibition in Barcelona’s MACBA gallery which I’m sure would never be aired today, so fearful would the owners be of backlash. It was called PUNK: Its Traces in Contemporary Art. It was even more of an assault on the senses than the Hell exhibition by the Chapman Brothers in 2000 which featured a nightmarish landscape in miniature of Nazi atrocities. Hell shoved suffering in your face. This, it said, is what your species is capable of – look at yourself.

PUNK was about transgression itself. Why do artists seek to push the limits of taste and decency? The answer was simple: in doing so we learn very simply truths about humanity and our fallibility.

One of the first exhibits to catch my eye in PUNK was 747 by Chris Burden. It’s a simple black and white image of the artist shooting at a jumbo jet as it flies overhead, taken in 1973. In our current age of mass terror, the photograph is deeply troubling. Would such an image be shown today? Would either left or right tolerate it?

READ MORE: Legal challenge could scupper £600million flagship superfast broadband plan

Later, in the exhibition, there’s an installation by Christoph Draeger entitled Black September. Its source material is the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972. It features a life-sized hotel room – identical to the one in which athletes were held hostage. The room, which you’re able to walk through, has been reconstructed as if you’re looking at it in the aftermath of mass murder. There’s blood on the walls, the sheets, the floor.

In an era when all of us experience atrocity through TV, Draeger puts us physically into the horror. But today, just four years on, would the Black September installation be cancelled? Would it be seen as offending the memory of the murdered athletes? Would it be accused of exploiting Jewish suffering? Would it be interpreted as riling hate against Muslims?

All I know is that Black September was one of the most powerful artistic experiences I’ve ever had. I was a baby when the Munich atrocities happened but I remember the aftermath throughout the 1970s. I knew back then it was a horrible, dreadful crime – perpetrated against innocent people for no other reason than they were Jewish. Yet, the Black September installation all but transported me into the lives of those who died. I felt their pain and suffering, I felt their rage at dying because of their race and religion, and I felt huge aching pity and sorrow for what they’d lost and what their loved ones lost. And I felt those things because of the emotional punch this art had dealt me.

There’s a picture of me in the MACBA inside the Black September installation, taken by my daughter. The photograph shows utter horror on my face. What the photograph doesn’t show is what’s going through my mind. The installation shocked me, it outraged me – but it had to do that to trigger emotions that would hopefully make me a more empathetic, understanding person. A slightly better, if still fundamentally flawed, human being.