by G. Scott Huggins
This is a column with more questions than answers, I’m afraid, but one I feel needs to be written. Some background: some time ago, I asked a question on social media that boiled down to, “When is one justified in taking offense?” I didn’t get a lot of takers on that question. The one I didn’t expect was from a rather well-known SF writer, who doesn’t often weigh in on my threads. He brusquely informed me that the question was a useless one, and unanswerable.
Since then, I have seen this same writer offer a lot of opinions about which people are right and wrong to take offense at certain actions and statements of other people, and why they are right or wrong in doing so. I am therefore forced to the conclusion that one of three things are true of this writer:
1) He did not understand the question I was asking (which may be the fault of either or both of us).
2) He is simply unaware of the conflict among his utterances about taking offense, or
3) He is well aware of what he is doing, and simply doesn’t want people to think about it too hard, lest they discover a principle that upsets his method for designating who gets to take offense and under what circumstances.
I am generally inclined to believe that the first or second explanation applies, here. But what’s the point? Why do we take offense in the first place?
It seems to me that offense is the first part of our defense mechanisms, by which we keep ourselves, our families, and our tribes from harm, or signal for help after we have been harmed. We recognize what we perceive to be a danger, and react against it, marshalling our energy and will to oppose the threat. But then again, what is taking offense? Is it the belief that we are under threat, or is it the action we take in order to signal that we have the belief? These are separate things, much as a thought is separate from the utterance of a thought. And of course, it is imminently possible to have a thought, and then speak in contradiction to the thought. In other words, we can lie. So the outward “taking of offense” can, like any other human signal, be subverted: it will not always truly signal the belief that the “offended” party is under threat or has suffered harm. It can also be used to gain advantage in the absence of threat or harm. The taking of offense can be deployed offensively.
So from these principles, we can break offense into three possible categories:
1) That in which a threat or harm to the offended party exists (e.g. a person has been slandered, and they take offense).
2) That in which no true threat or harm to the offended party exists, but they believe it does (e.g. a person believes they have been slandered, and takes offense, but the person committing the “slander” was actually referring to a third party).
3) That in which no true threat or harm to the offended party exists, but they believe it is to their advantage to pretend it does (e.g. a person knows that their “slanderer” was talking about a third party, but takes offense, insisting that the “slanderer,” a political opponent, was acting maliciously in order to discredit them).
There is of course, a great deal of difficulty in distinguishing among these three categories: to distinguish whether someone “taking offense” is in the second or the third categories would require reading their minds. If they are of the third category, they have every reason to continue the lie, and none to tell the truth. To distinguish whether someone is in the first or the second category may be easier, but if the offended party has reason to distrust the offending party, it may not.
I imagine that a number of readers may at this point say, along with Stephen Fry, “so the fuck what? Be offended?” But the problem with this is that the very term “offense” is enshrined in law: at some point, we decide that real harm has been done to someone that justifies doing violence to bring the offender to justice: to force them to repent or make restitution for their offense. And that certainly does not limit itself to physical violence or even violence to property. The offense of slander requires no physical violence to be considered an injurious crime. Or perhaps a better example would be this: The “offense” of disrespecting a reigning monarch was enshrined in law not three centuries ago. The “offense” of Black people walking into public places where White people didn’t want them was enshrined in law in the United States not sixty years ago. The “offense” of women appearing in public without head coverings is law in several countries today. Insofar as these laws have been repealed, it was because we came to believe that such “offenses” should not offend any reasonable persons: that the offense caused by their existence was much greater than any “offense” suffered by those in favor of those laws.
Now if we consider the elimination of such laws to stand for actual moral progress, rather than just a kind of legal fashion, we must agree that there is a standard by which we measure, or ought to measure, offense. And yet, I am unsure on what principle we can draw this line except to state it thus: “Offense should be taken only when a credible threat of harm, or actual harm, is done to a person.” But even then, we have a vast judgment call to make about what constitutes a credible threat of harm, or actual harm, or a proportional response to it. I might be justified in taking offense at a person who openly insults me. But even if I am a germophobe, I would certainly not be justified in responding with offense at the mere offer of a handshake. Already in the West, many restrictions upon free speech have been proposed and passed in the name of freeing people from the burden of suffering offense. Have those people truly been threatened? Have they suffered actual harm? And obviously that is a very different question than whether they have felt threatened or harmed. Anyone can feel anything; but when are we justified in those feelings? And even if the offended parties have been truly threatened by others’ speech, does curtailing that speech truly lead to less harm? I strongly believe it does not. But my beliefs alone cannot stand against a tide of feeling that may reshape our laws – our “offenses” – if we do not frame an answer. What should that answer be? What is the guiding principle by which we may distinguish a true threat from a false? A true “offense” from the gratuitous taking of offense? It is an important question, and one to which we need an answer, yet I see no easy answer to it. Nor do I believe that we can simply ask people to ignore all threats, as some of my acquaintances have suggested: it might be reasonable to ask me, (to use an example that in no way reflects something I am now worried about), to simply ignore someone who said, “All Christians ought to be shot.” But if you say that no verbal utterance ought to be restricted, then you would be giving carte blanche to someone who would, for example, call me at all hours of the day and night threatening to kill me and my family, specifically, for being Christian. And no one can live with that. But where do we draw that line? This is the question that must be answered. And I am no nearer to answering it.