Offence. It’s a popular word. Oxford Dictionaries give the definition I am interested in as:
2 [mass noun] annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself:he made it clear he’d taken offence I didn’t intend to give offence.
Well. Isn’t that nice?
I think offence is the major red herring of human communication. I’m not offended by someone who hurls racist abuse at me. I’m not offended by the endless barrage of mental health stigma and prejudice I face. I am not offended by the crappy situation in science funding for my discipline in the UK. I am not offended by the sexist drivel of the vocal online misogynists who try to bully and marginalise women in various fields for simply being women that don’t immediately kowtow to their unearned, unexamined, entitled privilege. I oppose all those things vehemently and vocally. But I’m not offended by one of them, and guess what, even if I were it’s simply not relevant.
Offence is meaningless. Its elevation to a lofty station where we’re meant to pay it attention is down to some quasi-relativistic nonsense. Nonsense that, very interestingly is readily appropriated from the academic, postmodernist left by the oft religious, anti-intellectual right, and always trotted out by the shallow thinkers of the world.* Who knew that was a marriage made in heaven? It’s a piece of nonsense that falsely links the equality of people, something it misunderstands anyway, with the equality of opinions or ideas. The “logic”, such that it is, runs roughly thus: “People are equally deserving of respect, people have ideas, criticism of people is disrespectful, therefore criticism of their ideas is disrespectful, disrespect is insulting and thus worthy of being offended about, so if you criticise an idea you are offending a person, therefore all ideas are equal and cannot be criticised for risk of offence.”. It ties the quality of the idea to the quality of the person. In this mindset only bad people have bad ideas.
But ideas are not all equal. In the grand arena that is reality, some ideas fight better than others. If we are interested in truth and knowledge, and better understanding and representing reality, then it suits our purposes to be most interested in those ideas that do that most effectively. Of course, as ever, there are epistemological niceties this skates over, but without retreats to unnecessary solipsism and worrying whether or not it really is all pixies underneath, the idea, for example, that the moon is made of green cheese and the idea that it is made of rock are not equal.** They do not equally represent demonstrable reality. They are not even mere matters of opinion, they are concerned with an observable matter of fact. To claim these two ideas are equal and due equal “respect” lest we “offend” someone is a pernicious falsehood. It is inimical to reasoned dialogue and inquiry.
How is this relevant to sexism, racism, mental health stigma, science funding etc? Because it is possible to oppose these things on the basis of the facts. Sexism, racism and mental health stigma persist, in part, due to largely unchallenged factual errors. Stereotypes and claims that don’t stand up to even armchair scrutiny, let alone academic rigour. Their negative social effects can be demonstrated, and whilst this might not impinge upon their truth value like the former problem does, it does impinge upon the importance of challenging these ideas, of not showing them the mythical “respect” so demanded. And here is one place the red herring of offence comes in. Criticise the ideas of a sexist and you’ll get told you’re doing so because you’re offended pretty damn fast. Criticise the claims of the credulous or religious and you’ll be told to be silent because you are offending them just as quickly. Both are dishonest bits of rhetoric that unthinkingly appeal to the above false relativism. The first “you’re only criticising my ideas because you’re insulted personally”, the second “you’re insulting me personally by criticising my ideas”. Both are nonsense.
“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”
John Stuart Mill, in a Parliamentary debate with the Conservative MP, John Pakington (May 31, 1866)
** Too ridiculous and easy a target? Okay. We have people who claim that hugely dilute solutions, solutions so dilute it isn’t even guaranteed that the active substance is even in any specific dose, actually increase in biological potency when the evidence is all, overwhelmingly to the contrary. In fact the evidence against this chemical claim (because it is a chemical claim) is even stronger than the evidence we have that the moon is made of rock. This violates all known physics and chemistry in so vast a number of ways that our universe would simply not work the way it demonstrably does. Believe me, compared to homoeopathy, the green cheese moon hypothesis is sense.