Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On Being Offended

Without wishing to exaggerate, it seems that there are today common and prevalent converation phrases that take one or more of the following forms: "I find this to be offensive," "That is an offensive thing to say (or do)," or "What you are saying is very offensive." Obviously, what is common to all of these phrases is the accusation that something said or done is offensive. Such accusations, however, are dangerous, for they could, and many cases do, have the effect of shaming or cowing the accused speaker into silence. Sometimes this is not so bad. When the speaker is going on and on about how a group of people (African Americans, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Cathloics, Russians, Kosovars, etc.) are nothing but animals or something like that, it might not be so bad to shut him up - if, that is, he and his ilk are the sort to be cowed by the accusation that what they say is offensive (if X has it in him to say that all Arabs are scum, then he is not likely to be moved by the accusation of being offensive). After all, such people are simply hurling epithets. Were they to be engaged in some semblance of rational argument, even if racist or, generally, bigoted, shutting them up is not good. It deprives us of the chance to convince them that they are wrong and possibly changing their minds, or at least the minds of a third party. And it deprives us, the ones arguing with them, of the chance of re-polishing the beliefs we take to be true by having these beliefs continuously challeneged, even if by bigots. This is, of course, an argument originally given by John Stuart Mill in "On Liberty": we should never silence what we take to be a wrong opinion for many reasons, one of which is depriving ourselves of challenging those beliefs we take to be true. If we do not challenge our beliefs, they can become stale, and our holding them becomes a matter of rote. Mill had more to say on this issue, and I will return to another important point by him. But first, a few matters need to be addressed.

Note first that, depending on what we mean by "offensive," there could always be someone who will find something offensive. If by "offensive" we mean something along the lines of "is found to be annoying," then there's always bound to be someone who will find something or other to be annoying and so offensive. I (and many others) find people chewing with their mouths open annoying; some find certain colors to be so; others find perfumes to be annoying; and yet others find eating cheese to be so. The examples can be multiplied. If this is what we mean by "offensive," it is clear that accusing others of being offensive when they say or do certain things is a practice that should be eliminated, for then the accusation of offensiveness functions primarily to register or express the subjective annoyance of the sccuser. And in that case, who really cares? If I say to Rachel that I find her unrelenting habit of eating cheese to be offensive, then so what? Why should she or anyone else care? People have all sorts of weird tastes and pursuits and, as the saying goes, you can't please everyone. Accusing others of offensiveness really does nothing but express the spoiled attitude of the accuser (e.g., "I find the way you walk to be offensive") and to embarass, hurt, and probably anger the accused (e.g., "Really? Go **** yourself"). Who needs this?

But it is likely that we mean more by accusing someone of being offensive than simply registering our annoyance with or dislike of what she says or does. It is likely that we are registering our view that what is being said or done is repulsive, abhorrent, or, minimally, wrong. These are not mere subjective reactions and accusations, by the way. They purport to say something more than that the accuser personally finds what is being said or done to be horrid; they try to impute an objective quality to what the accused has said or done, namely, that it is horrid, repulsive, abhorrent, or wrong. This point coheres with the typical cases in which people accuse others of being offensive. Such cases include those when X claims, for example, that women like to be hooted at by men as they walk down the street because they like the attention, that gay men are a bunch of sissies because all the ones I've met can't throw a ball if their lives depended on it, and that African Americans cheat the welfare system (or what's left of it), because all the ones I know can easily work but prefer to live off of the government. When some of us react to such observations with the retort that they are offensive, we clearly mean more than that we find them annoying or that we dislike them; we mean to say that they are, at minimum, wrong, and maybe even viciously so, expressing not only a weak grasp of the facts, but a measure of idiocy that is hard to fathom.

Of course, the observations in the above examples are wrong. But the issue is whether the reaction of finding them offensive is the proper sort of reaction. In today's climate, to accuse someone of being offensive usually has the effect of silencing the person, of getting him or her to quit. Whether this is done intentionally is not my concern, though I'm certain some people do try to silence others by resorting to such tactics on purpose. My concern is the effect such tactics have. Most interesting is the fact that such silencing is successful mostly in those cases when the opinion offered (and then the speaker silenced) is not popular. The reason why this works is obvious: to silence someone by shaming or cowing her, often, though not always, depends on the fact that what she says or does lies in the minority opinion. For example, I am able to silence John with the accusation of offensiveness when John claims that Arabs are backward people precisely, though not wholly, because John is aware that his opinion is in the minority (which does not require - obviously - that John literally be outnumbered by other people present at my shaming him). It is also not necessary for such shaming or silencing to work that the opinion of the silenced person be false: an Israeli who agrees that Palestinian refugees should have their right of return recognized could easily be shamed into silence by fellow Israeli patriots. What is crucial is, as mentioned, that the opinion be in the minority.

This is important because we do not want minority opinions to be silenced, and we should not have them be silenced; if accusations of offensiveness silence them, then such accusations need to go. We should quit the habit. They should be replaced by other reactions, such as, "And please tell us why you think so," and "Could you please support that claim?" (with "please" used non-sarcastically). Such reactions promote debate and reasoned discussions, thus helping us strengthen the beliefs we take to be true and possibly also proving our opponent wrong and maybe even convincing him that he's wrong. Shutting him up by telling him that he's offensive does nothing of the sort and probably has negative consequences: it might make him resentful and could possibly make us priggish.

Moreover, minority opinions are, clearly, not always wrong or bigoted. If the true ones are silenced, we all stand to lose by this. Unless we all wish to keep our heads in the sand, we need to continuously test our own beliefs and opinions. Having them clash with minority ones can only do us good. Accusing them of offensiveness and silencing them can only do us bad. Indeed, if accusations of offensiveness are a form of invective, then we truly treat minority opinions unjustly. This is connected to one crucial point Mill makes in "On Liberty" (Chapter II, paragraph 44), namely, that it is often those whose opinions are part of the majority ones that rely on invective to silence their interlocutors. Indeed, those whose opinions are in the minority, according to Mill, often cannot afford to rely on invective, for the only chance they often have to receive a proper "hearing" is to present themselves in a "studied moderation of language and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground."

We ought, then, to quit this business of accusing others and their opinions of offensiveness and engage each other in a good, hearty debate. After all, this is why we have free speech and this is what good, solid democracies are built upon.