On offence

[This essay may evolve as I continue to work on it. I’m yet not entirely satisfied with it. Do not assume it to accurately reflect my current position.]

In this society today, much discussion on acceptability seems to be spent on the concept of whether something is offensive. The problem with this way of phrasing objections, even valid objections, is that it revolves around an emotion or reaction, and is therefore inherently subjective. Your offensive is not my offensive, so to speak. This isn’t to say that being obnoxious or otherwise uncivil should be considered fine. Don’t get me wrong. But explaining the problem in more objective terms is likely to communicate the issue better.

Rights to take offense

It is a consequence of free speech that anyone can, speaking for themself, take and express offence at anything whatsoever, for any or no reason. Otherwise would have chilling implications, implying some authority regulating what people are allowed to be offended by, and more generally assuming dominion over one’s emotions.

And an implication of this: consider that Bob posts something which Alice finds offensive. Alice is entirely at liberty to complain to Bob at being offended by the post. However, Bob is equally at liberty to feel and express offence at Alice’s complaint, for example. Alice might decide to claim all she likes that Bob has no right to be offended, or more bluntly is not allowed to be offended. However, this does not change the fact that Bob deserves the same free speech as Alice, and Alice taking and expressing offence at something which Bob posted does not put any restriction on Bob’s free speech. Nor can Alice insist that Bob is not in fact offended, any more than Bob can insist that Alice is not, as they cannot speak for each others’ feelings or objections, only for their own.

I daresay that the Westboro Baptist Church takes offence at a number of things of which their objections would be, reasonably, considered offensive by a great number of people.

Bob’s words might be rude or hateful, and Alice might rightly decide not to host Bob’s writings on her website or give Bob a soapbox. She is under no obligation to host or propagate Bob’s words. But Bob is still at liberty to make such statements speaking for himself.

Now if what Bob said was libellous, fraudulent or otherwise criminal, that would be a different matter. It would be a crime, and Bob would not be under any rightful liberty to commit it. But it would be the relatively concrete and specific fraudulence, libel or whatever, not the comparatively vague and subjective offensiveness, that it is forbidden for.

A heuristic, not a barometer

Now, considering that anyone can publicly take offence at anything, does someone being offended by something mean that that something is evil?

No, it doesn’t, not inherently.

Now, I’m not saying that being offensive per se is morally sound. Often, there is very sound reason behind feeling offended or taking and expressing offence. Some statement may be discourteous, prejudiced or hateful, for example, and someone taking offence may well highlight these problems. But it is these moral problems that are wrong with it, not being offensive in and of itself.

As a side-note, Jesus didn’t back down on his message simply because it would offend certain people - he knowingly offended the Pharisees / religious leaders of the time (Matthew 15:12-15). Hence the behaviour of Jesus (considered by many to be the exemplary moral behaviour) wasn’t exactly avoiding offence as an end in itself.

In summary

Hence: someone being offended by something may highlight a problem with the thing, but is not itself the problem. The reason for the offence (if the material is defamatory, hateful or whatever) may well be a problem, or even a quite serious one. However, it is this concrete and objective explanation of the problem which should be raised, rather than the vague and subjective accusation of being offensive.

Stephen Fry put it quite succinctly, albeit ambiguously:

"It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that.' As if that gives them certain rights. It's actually nothing more... than a whine." [I saw hate in a graveyard -- Stephen Fry, The Guardian, 5 June 2005]

In conclusion, complain about what is wrong in objective and concrete terms, and avoid summarising the problems as offensive or I’m offended. Simply being offended is a reaction, everyone is at liberty to react that way to anything, hence it should not in-and-of-itself give any additional leverage when arguing that something is rude, unethical, discourteous or otherwise wrong.


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