On giving offense [2]

Yesterday, I wrote about an extremely annoying encounter with my arch-nemesis.  At the beginning, I said I wanted to discuss:

[...] offense — giving offense, taking offense, accountability for offense and validity of offense.

So, I'm going to get into that, in the abstract, today.


In any given instance of offense, there are necessarily two parties:  I'll call them the speaker and the listener.

There are three things in this argument that I think are obvious, but I'm going to spell them out anyway.

Offense is, a form of pain.  I'm going to take it as read that, all else being equal, less pain is better.  That's how I'm calibrating 'good' and 'bad' in this argument.

Human life necessarily contains pain -- we cannot eliminate all pain from human existence, and we can't reasonably expect someone to put themselves through more pain than they would be relieving in another person in choosing to take any given action.  In a phrase, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

No instance of offense, nor any pain, occurs in a vacuum.  Every occasion is subject to the variables of its circumstance, culturally, situationally, personally.  So, for example, racial slurs are more offensive in a culture with a lot of racial tension than attacks on one's doily preference.


So, there's obviously a moral component to this issue.  From there, we can isolate two popular extremist positions, both of which are, I think, obviously incorrect:

Placing the blame entirely on the speaker, and placing it entirely on the listener.

The first is incorrect because it would require everyone to know the minds of everyone they could possibly communicate with, then only ever say things that won't offend any of them.  I don't think I have to explain why that's impossible.

The second, which was the position of my conversational partner yesterday, is obviously wrong, because 1.) people don't have complete control over what they hear, and 2.) people don't have complete control over what they feel.

In some cases, finding someone to blame is counterproductive, anyway.  Offense is often accidental, and as a society I think we'd be better served if everyone made an effort to learn how to give and accept criticism of their statements.  (At present in society this is still pretty unfair on marginalized groups, who are far more often on the receiving end, but as it stands, marginalized people tend to be forced to develop these skills anyway, and it wouldn't hurt for more broadly privileged people to learn them, too.)


But what about people who are being deliberately offensive?

Ricky Gervais said of his Golden Globes presentation early this year, "No one has the right not to be offended." [Emphasis mine. In looking for a source, he was not the only person I found to have said that, he might not be the original source.]

I think this is true, but I would add another point, to go hand-in-hand with that one: No one has the right to a platform.

You may have a right to say whatever you like.  But you do not have the right to demand that people listen to you, or to demand that other people participate in promoting your voice.  You can start a blog, but no one is infringing on your freedom of speech by not linking it.  You can hold a rally, but no one is required to attend.  You can send letters to your local paper, but no one is required to print them.


I think the reason that this discussion gets so sticky is that we tend to try to leave out the key element.  In most conversations, we try to come to a common understanding that, hopefully, transcends our separate values.  But you can't transcend values in talking about offensiveness:  being offended is what happens when there's a clash of values.

The pain that comes from being offended is the experience of cognitive dissonance and frustration.

So, offense is a moral issue.  But it's not a moral issue in and of itself -- the suffering caused by giving offense can't be automatically attributed to the speaker or the listener.

The way to determine who's wrong in an instance of offense being given or taken is to unpick the underlying values dissonance, and resolve it.  The person who was in the wrong is the person whose values were wrong.

Now, obviously, sometimes that's impossible.  There are many cases in which there's no right or wrong to be found, there are many cases where peoples' values are simply mutually exclusive.


But there are also cases where values are fact-based.  Sexism and racism are, for example, both based on the same motives (human well-being) being filtered through demonstrably wrong reasoning processes.

There are, therefore, cases where the same joke might calculate to a different outcome in different circumstances. Take, for example, the same racist joke, told by:

  • A white man, sincerely == The speaker is at fault.
  • Daniel Tosh, a self-consciously highly offensive comedian == ambiguous, with arguments to be made for his offensiveness versus the acceptability of his particular contextualization.
  • A member of the target group, tongue-in-cheek == most likely acceptable, though debate on that question is possible.


Finally, is taking offense valid?

Yes.  I think this part is pretty unambiguous:  values are not universal, and they will clash.  We react, intellectually and emotionally, to those clashes. There's no getting around that, and it's simply not legitimate to blame someone for an emotional experience they're incapable of avoiding.