There has been a hue and cry of late by many ostensibly aggrieved parties that they have been offended by others’ speech. From the lowly lowlifes who committed murder in Paris to the gilded throne of His Holiness the Pope, it seems that many tender ears feel affronted by the WORDS that others speak. I address this to those thin-skinned souls as well as to the more rational and reasonable reader.
I think it is important to establish the context or situation in which offense is taken, i.e. offended by a “statement, belief, position or action.” These are all separate though sometimes related contexts and not all weighted equally. I should like to address these in reverse order.
Offensive actions: to use an extreme example, one could consider homicide. At first blush this seems an easy target to knock down and be done with but I don’t think this is the case. The reason, in my opinion, that societies the world over have different “categories” of homicide speaks to the reality that homicide isn’t always so neatly cut and dried as “thou shalt not kill.” And so we have accidental death, negligent homicide, wartime homicide (which receives not only exemption but sanction and approval), murder, etc. In each case the circumstances and relationship between the victim and the perpetrator tend to define the level to which we find ourselves offended by the action of homicide.
I would posit, however, that homicide is nearly always “offensive,” it gives offense to one’s ethical and moral sensibilities. The obvious cases of outright murder and negligent homicide because of the perpetrator’s indifference to the lives of the victims are fairly easy to categorize as offensive since they speak to the reasonable expectation that no person should be deprived of their life who has not first threatened the life of another. But self-defense and wartime homicide are also offensive in that they force the killer, against their normal morals, to end the life of another by virtue of the other’s real or perceived threat against their own life. They are forced into creating an exception to their own rule of not seeking to use violence against others.
We give the person acting in self-defense approbation to kill because given the circumstance it seems they had little choice. That forced hand doesn’t make the homicide necessarily less offensive, but I think it may assuage the guilt the person might feel for carrying out the deed. The point being that the one who “feels offended” may not always be the “receiving” party or their in-group. Sometimes, as is the case with many people in self-defense situations, the most offended party is the one who commits the act by virtue of their being forced to do something which insults their own sense of how to treat their fellow human. One recurring theme I have heard from some law enforcement officers and combat veterans is that they sometimes feel frustration, anger and resentment toward the ones they had to kill despite the fact that the person was actively trying to kill them. Thrust into an impossible situation, they are left with only all bad choices, but choices which must be made. No wonder it is traumatic.
Now, homicide might be the most extreme form of coercion but given the exigencies of some of the circumstances, I don’t think it is always the most offensive. Rape, torture, abuse, and other forms of coercion against the helpless or innocent rise to a much more heinous level of offense than self-defense homicide. Generally speaking, one would rather sit in judgement of an outright murderer, rapist or pedophile than someone who committed homicide during wartime since the expectations of how we should treat fellow humans is clearer in those cases and so the ability to make moral judgements about those actions is easier for us. That is to say, we are more easily offended by the obviously immoral than by the more nebulous. But again, the feeling of offense comes from the feeling that others are not meeting the reasonable expectations of how individuals should treat one another. Generally speaking, everyone thinks, to some degree, that to coerce or harm the undeserving or innocent is offensive. Which leads to beliefs and positions…
The beliefs or positions one takes can influence one’s actions. In fact, they must. I treat these two together although I do think that they should be given more attention separately. For brevity’s sake I must address them joined. As a quick aside, I think it is important to note an example which may split the hair, as it were, fine enough for now: On abortion, Christopher Hitchens was notable among Progressives and the Left in his belief that an unborn fetus was a “candidate member of the next generation” but also clearly and loudly proclaimed his position that women should have control over their own reproductive rights. His beliefs and position on the matter was characterized by nuance, if not ambivalence.
Beliefs and positions inform and justify our actions as we see them. While most everyone who is not a sociopath will likely see the coercion of the innocent or the undeserving as offensive, humans have found rationales and created schemes for creating categories of just exactly who is innocent or deserving.
It may be generally held that to kill children, commit rape, enslave humans or abuse sentient creatures is offensive but when one applies the filter of belief and cultural positions to these actions it becomes easier to commit what would otherwise be an offensive act if committed against one’s own “people.” The creation of the out-group category “other”gives sanction to the commission of those behaviors, driven directly by beliefs and positions, which the recipients of those actions still may find offensive because they do not view themselves in the same debased way as the perpetrators of the deeds.
And so, when Mengele, Mao, Pol Pot, the Manson Family, the Green River Killer, etc. commit atrocities against their fellow humans it is because they have created a psychological exemption for themselves by classifying their victims as “other” and so avoid the feeling of offense which they otherwise should normally feel. Meanwhile, the rest of us, either the sane or the not-brainwashed, can see the behavior for what it is and are rightly offended by it. The beliefs may lead to offensive actions but the beliefs themselves may be found offensive as well. Such beliefs, again, violate the generally “normal” presumption that humans should not violently coerce one another without just cause.
And yes, beliefs can be offensive. If we take “offensive” to mean that an act or belief fails to meet the expectations we have of “right” behavior then our brains, being the social monkeys we are, can interpret those things as insults or threats to our very selves. Whether they are actual threats or not is of no consequence, it is our perception of threat that matters when we activate our “offended” sensibilities. So “offense” and “offended”are really just emotional responses to outside stimuli. They are responses that give us a feeling of displeasure, discomfort, pain, etc. precisely because they fail to meet our expectations of a particular interaction with some other agent.
If someone holds a belief that it is acceptable to torture children, most sane people will find such a belief to be offensive. I am not implying that there exist, as Wm. Lane Craig does, “objective moral values” and I will not go into detail as to why I think that phrase is oxymoronic, pun intended. I am saying that the expectations of most normal human beings is that no other human being should, under any circumstance, torture children and the reaction that a normally functioning human brain has upon hearing the advocation of such behavior is to feel literal discomfort, displeasure and even a sense of pain via our innate sympathy and empathy for others, especially the helpless and the young, with which our evolutionary past has endowed us.
Now, given that the obviously maladjusted beliefs and positions of the sociopath can cause offense to most normal people, is it really so much of a leap to understand that between groups of differing opinions and beliefs you will find that opposite group members may find the beliefs and positions of others to be offensive? When you see that humans are somewhat narcissistic and project their own expectations onto others, even the most pedestrian and banal beliefs, like what someone eats, with whom they engage in mundane activities, what they wear, etc., can give rise to feelings of offense in those who do not hold those same beliefs or positions. The mechanics of the thing are the same: other persons do not meet the expectations of what we find to be “acceptable.” In these cases we have made the cognitive leap of expecting that what others hold to be true or moral should also be the same as what we find to be true or moral, irrespective of whether they are part of our in-group or not. It is a case where we project our own beliefs and positions onto others with the implication that our position is true and any other position is therefor false.
So when someone says of another’s relatively inconsequential belief, “I find the _________ belief or position to be offensive” they really do mean it. But I would suggest that they mean it because they are responding to differing beliefs emotionally and not rationally. The processes in the brain which are being used to handle information with which they disagree are shunted through the amygdala and other “fight or flight” structures. When one engages the forebrain and actually thinks about a new or foreign position there may be less likelihood of responding with simple offense. They may still arrive at the position of being offended, but at least they will have had to get there by considering the actual positions and beliefs of the other person. It will be more of an “intellectualy offended” rather than the knee jerk offended so common with many people when they are confronted with ideas which are contrary to their own cherished beliefs. I think that intellectual offense may be a much more palatable condition for one’s adversaries to be in than to find them driven primarily by their emotions.
…which leads to Speech. Given the gravity of recent events, I daresay it may seem as though I will be giving short shrift to this aspect of the topic but it seems rather clear to me. Speech is just the medium through we express beliefs and positions. Just as I find the literary works of the Marquis de Sade to be revolting and profane, it is because I find the ideas and actions which inspire them to be revolting and profane. The speech of the Marquis may be labelled “offensive” because of what it represents but I dare not silence him nor those like him for fear that some other, less tolerant censor should seek to silence me for far less. Of course, we only label speech as offensive because it stands as a feeble and vicarious transmitter of beliefs and ideas. Speech is not per se offensive, in fact. It is merely the ether through which we transmit ideas.
In the arena of ideas there can be no room nor quarter given to those who would seek to extinguish the voices of others because of simple disagreement. But certainly, and with diligent and steady resolve, one should do battle against ideas and beliefs. In fact, without allowing to our adversaries the freedom to express ideas and beliefs we can not hope to find any justification for waging such battle against their offensive ideas. Without allowing the offensive to speak clearly and openly as to what their position is, we can not begin to even understand what we ourselves may find offensive about their belief or position… beliefs and positions which directly lead to offensive actions. We should seek the extinction of offensive ideas that bring harm to others when those ideas threaten to manifest themselves as actions. If one insists on merely silencing the speech of others, it points to the weakness of their own ideas.
So, re: Charlie Hebdo et al, what the enemies of reason and humanity really fear is the idea that they are not special, or divinely selected, or different from you or I. And rather than argue, with Reason, for their position, they seek to simply extinguish dissent. Censorship is always the refuge of the Naked Emperor and the intellectually dishonest. And when persons cry “I am offended by your speech!” and call for silence to remedy their emotional discomfort they are openly admitting the weakness and falsity of their position. The utter failure of their beliefs to comfort their emotional distress and the immorality of their actions belie the reality that they have no idea what it means to be truly offended because to have that much humanity would require a sense of empathy and sympathy for their fellow humans no matter their creed or beliefs. To be offended IS one’s right. To insist on being NOT offended speaks to a selfish, infantile and narcissistic mindset that only tyrants, the petulant and sociopaths insist upon.
So, No. One should not worry nor concern themselves with what offends others if those others are offended in such base, mindless ways by mere words. Such people will always find a way to be offended, no matter what. We should live our lives with unfettered tongues.
Should people be offended? Absolutely. The only question is about What should they be offended?
Author: Tim Propst is a man with too many hobbies including chasing solitude and gathering morels. He avoids small talk and pop culture inanities and would prefer watching grass grow over any conversation about popular culture or other peoples personal lives. If he isn’t getting stung by honeybees, making videos with his creative friends, practicing bushcraft, making mead, or throwing heavy things in a kilt you might be able to find him writing about whatever strikes a nerve… if he hasn’t gone fishing.