Some emotional theorists believe that there are basic emotions that combine to make more complex emotions, much like a color wheel of primary and secondary colors. Interestingly, offended was nowhere on this chart. Nor has it been discussed by any emotional theorist I've ever read. Maybe I'm wrong to assume that "offended" is an emotion at all. It seems to be though - people use it to describe their internal state after an external event. That seems to be akin to any emotion. But in some ways, "offense" seems to be distinct from most regular emotions. This amorphous combination of emotions, which I can only assume sits somewhere in between repulsion and victimization, seems to be given increasing and dangerous credence in our society. Unlike other political and social problems, my generation must accept primary responsibility for this.
Before we discuss when "offended" is cried most destructively, let us ask "When is ‘offended’ used most productively?". When and where is the term used to advance discussion and dialogue in the most useful and relevant way? The best argument I have heard is that, essentially, "offended" is an important term for marginalized groups to use to open discussions on personal grievances. If a member of an "unprivileged group" was subject to, for example, a racist remark, the individual could use, "That offends me!" as an exclamation to launch into a discussion about the problematic nature of the remark. I see this as not so much wrong intrinsically but unnecessary and pragmatically harmful.
But before this can be addressed, we must ask what can offend people. As I see it, there could be two reasons why someone would be offended. One, they have been confronted by something that is false. Two, they could be confronted by a truth that they do not want to hear. I believe we should provide no sanction for the latter of these two. I see no social utility in protecting people from uncomfortable truths, despite whatever Jack Nicholson may have said in A Few Good Men. In the first, the event raises (not begs) a more interesting question: How do we confront wrong beliefs? As far as I am concerned, Western Civilization has an answer to this question and this answer has been known since at least Socrates if not earlier -- we engage them in rational discourse. We identify said offender's faulty evidence, or reasoning, and we rectify it.
To use emotion to express disagreement, as the "offended" seek to do, is to commit one of the most well known logical fallacies: the appeal to emotion. I will concede that to some this may look like frivolous logical purity, and ask that I consider "offended" as a pragmatic tool. So what if it is not a logical response, it can get to the right outcome. Why, if someone says "I hate gays" would you trace the roots of their homophobia and explain the erroneous nature of their beliefs when you can just exclaim your emotional, knee jerk, response? To them, I have a pragmatic response. If we continue to teach people that a personal emotional response is an appropriate and relevant response to grievances, we undermine our basic principles of logical discourse. Not only that, but the remark others and distances its recipient, making them double down on their positions, instead of bringing them into a respectful discussion.
If we create a standard of pandering to the whims of everybody who is susceptible to be offended, then what do we do with the person who is offended by everything? Moreover, what about the person who purports to be offended by everything. While it might be fun to shut down every conversation where someone utters "neolib globalization conspiracy" or makes outrageous claims about Haliburton, in the greater interest of discourse and reason, I see the slippery slope that is giving logical credence to emotions as incredibly dangerous. When "offended" becomes commonplace, we begin to assume that the burden of proof shifts to the alleged offender to prove how the comment was not offensive and should be admissible, instead of the reverse as would be proper. Offended culture makes censorship the standard, and inclusion the exception. So even if "offended" was only used in the best way, the use of the word is still problematic.
Those who think that bad beliefs must be curbed as a response to emotion, not reason, because humans (or Americans) simply cannot engage in a rational discussion, take what I would consider an incredibly pessimistic view of civilization. If we do not assume that people, at least to some extent, will change their views when confronted by strong evidence and reason in logical discussion, the very idea of human advancement seems futile. And we have seen a slow but historically supported progression of humanity in almost every metric, so seeing appeals to emotion as the only means of change seems not only defeatist but ahistoric.
Obviously we shouldn't scrutinize our claims primarily by their emotional impact but by their accuracy. But I think that the way "offended" has established itself as some sort of pseudo-emotion, we forget that it is only a knee jerk response and give it undue respect.
Further, the emotional impact often seems inauthentic. The cry of offended has become a matter of signaling for many Americans, particularly progressives. When an allegedly racist remark is made, one is compelled to exclaim they are offended, to thereby disassociate themselves with the remark, signaling that they are an enlightened liberal that would never make such a remark, yet they do not care to take the time to actually educate and engage. Are we really expected to believe that someone is sincerely offended by a remark of which they do not know the verity, about a group on the other side of the world about which they know nothing? In these cases, it seems more likely to be lip service.
At its very worst, "offended" attacks the very logic underpinning free speech. In Milton's Areopagitica, he responds to a British proposition of censorship, saying, "He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian." Milton argues that our very virtue comes from our ability to absorb faulty, offensive arguments and bigotry and reject them. This is much more virtuous than to avoid facing the arguments at all. It is simply unnecessary to silence "offensive" voices, because if these voices actually preached evils, this war of ideas would show their falsehood. No idea is merely too dangerous to be shared. To believe that is to fundamentally dispute the rationale of free speech.
Most of this seems intuitive. That's probably because I'm doing nothing but reiterating the same enlightenment and classical values upon which Western Civilization is founded. I'm unable to comprehend when, how, and why we began rewriting these fundamental truths with politically correct nonsense, but it needs to end. Few things trouble me more than this trend.
I do not think my concerns are abstract either. The reaction to Charlie Hebdo was very much indicative of this trend. On January 7th, 2015, the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was raided by gunmen. These gunmen killed 11 people, injuring an additional 11. The men were found to be associated with the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda, and were infuriated by the Charlie Hebdo’s satirical depictions of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. In the West, this attack was immediately recognized as an assault of free speech. Since the Enlightenment, there has been a political tradition of freedom of speech and expression in the West, embodied by Voltaire's sentiment, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Many people adopted the slogan "Je suis Charlie," to stand in solidarity with the paper in an amazing display of unity in values. Quickly, though, a backlash of people saying "Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie" began. This "I believe in free speech, but..." crowd is a perfect example of the increasing deference to emotions over rights. Excusing acts of terrorism and horrific violence even in the slightest because the perpetrating party was "offended" is beyond absurd. Still though, many looked to the provocation as important and relevant to the killings.
I would argue, that in the event that someone is so offended by a claim, picture, or argument that they are willing to kill over it, offending them shifts from being a negative thing to becoming a moral imperative. The fact that something as benign as a picture, even if it is of a self proclaimed prophet, should have the capacity to provoke violence is insane. Normatively, no one in this world should be that intolerant. The worst thing we could do for someone who responds with violence is to pander to them - to allow them comfort in their bigotry. This will only encourage such despicable behavior.
This is not to say we generally shouldn't strive for politeness; we should. Political Correctness advocates love to claim that being PC is the same as "not being an asshole." Of course this completely ignores the Right's whole discomfort with PC: That it is used to suppress opinions being contributed politely and reasonably. A Victorian era poem tells us, "Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates; At the first gate, ask yourself, is is true? At the second gate ask, is it necessary? At the third gate ask, is it kind?" I think this is an excellent heuristic for choosing what we say. My point is that if someone fails to meet this standard, we should explain to them their error instead of lashing out against them. If someone meets this standard, and you still feel offended, maybe you should be doing the rethinking.
If Conservatism is concerned with small government, then why do we care so much about social censorship? After all, it's not the government censoring; it's being done on an individual level. Time and time again, radical progressives respond that obviously this isn’t a concern of free speech because the First Amendment only protects against government censorship, and these are just social consequences. While this is simplistically true, this attitude lazily overlooks a larger Spirit of the First Amendment that is essential for a real national dialogue. The First Amendment, while of incredible importance, is but a starting point. To have a healthy national marketplace of ideas, we need to be tolerant and openminded, as liberals ironically claim to be, on an inter-personal level. That requires not calling offense at every uncomfortable subject.
Essentially, there are two reasons why we don't believe the government should do things: because they are not the job of government or because they are inherently wrong. Censorship falls into the latter of these categories. Emotional pandering presents the greatest threat of censorship today, and needs to be stopped.
Photo Credit: Eli Christman via Flickr