Category Archives: Previous topics

The Winter of Our Disconnect

My Trump Timeout has timed out. It’s high time to get on with things. A few of my more daring friends are way ahead of me, and one or two never tuned out. They’ve actually been reading the papers every day. The president, they tell me, has reassured us all: things couldn’t be better. (The only person I know who admits to voting for The Donald says that things are at least all right.) But just because I’m in the dark—I don’t know anything, I swear, about the attorney general’s lying under oath, or Congress’s failure to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act immediately, or the EPA’s plan to renounce its mission, or the president’s press secretary’s amiable ignorance (he couldn’t be lying, could he? they don’t do that sort of thing)—doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on elsewhere. Continue reading

The year of living offensively

Offensiveness won. Or lost. It’s really the same thing: it just depends on how you come at it.

For more than a year, the press has treated Americans to a tsunami of stories about offensiveness. Though many of the stories were one-offs, they centered around two motifs: the hothouse atmosphere on college campuses, and the abhorrent rhetoric of Donald Trump, now the President-elect of the United States. Continue reading

An Inoffensive Road Trip

Just returned from a 4,000-mile round trip to the Rockies. It took us by car from the east coast to Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Omaha, Lincoln, Cheyenne, Boulder, Denver, and back via Colby (KS), Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield (IL), Champaign, Louisville, and home (via Charleston and western Maryland) — 14 states in all and in several of them, different routes east and west. A lot of ground to look for signs of that spirit of offense that has been fodder in the reports this past year of the national mood. But we found — nothing. We didn’t even find anything mildly suspect. Continue reading

Scrub ’em clean

I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of weeks, writing the first draft of the proposal for the book Taking Offense. During that time, I’ve been musing about a problem that has loomed large in the news this spring, the problem of when to scrub away the names or symbols of honorees whom we now understand dishonor us.

It’s likely a fundamental human impulse to pay homage to those who have achieved great things: saved the community from enemies in battle, governed well, invented processes and machines to raise us from trouble and drudgery, created works of art that inspire, taught us to learn and grow, or helped or enlightened us in some other way. You no doubt have a hero or two in mind as you read this, as do I as I write. Some honorees are known to families, neighborhoods, or particular communities, others to whole nations and the world.

And then comes the moment when you wake up, or grow up, or learn something new, about yourself, the world, and your hero. Continue reading

AO in One Easy Lesson

I missed it at the time, so this is a retrospective reflection on a curious blunder last March, when Microsoft unleashed an AI bot to talk to millennials on the Web. (Now there’s a nine-word phrase my parents would never have understood: for you elders, an Internet bot [short for robot], is an automated software program that carries out a repetitive online task that would take you or me forever if we had to do it by hand, like searching for codes or copying specific information, like addresses.)

Microsoft called its “chatbot” Tay and described it as “Microsoft’s A.I. fam the internet that’s got zero chill.” Continue reading

Fine-Grained Offense Filters

If you strain at gnats you can usually find them or, searching even more closely, gnats’ gnats or smaller. All you need is a fine enough sieve. Same with fine-grained Offense Filters, which seem to be selling well this past year. The latest to learn the lesson is Gaps Kids, in early April, when it found itself embarrassed into taking down an image from an ad campaign for Ellen DeGeneres’s clothing line for kids. Continue reading

A New Bus Ride

A doll with measles?  Or a colostomy bag? I’m talking here about a whole a new bus ride.

Aficionados of “critical offense studies” (henceforth, COS) will know the reference. In one of the very few books to analyze the concept of offense (and its cognate “offensiveness”), the late Joel Feinberg in Offense to Others (see Bibliography tab) asked his readers to imagine taking a series of bus rides, outlined in a hierarchy of offensive sights or actions. Continue reading

Harvard Law School Shears Its Shield

After months of study, a Harvard Law School committee recommended to Dean Martha Minow on March 3 that the School jettison a shield it has used for 80 years because it is based on the crest of a slave-holding family that helped prompt the School’s establishment. Dean Minow has endorsed the recommendation, which can be acted on only by the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing body. Continue reading

Polysemy, Now You Don’t

I’ve been thinking about people who proclaim themselves offended by words for which they mistakenly assume the wrong meaning. A celebrated example is “niggardly,” the use of which cost an aide to the mayor of Washington, DC, his job back in 1999, even though he was entirely correct and his detractors entirely wrong (the same word has starred in similar episodes around the country since then). Lately there’s been much to-do about “master.” Continue reading

Watch that killer metaphor!

Offensive — or merely tasteless? No, not the Iowa primaries; I cover only serious things. But we can tarry in Iowa to consider this item, which I stumbled across as I’ve been attempting, at a snail’s pace, to put my stack of clippings into retrievable order. Seems the president of the University of Iowa, J. Bruce Harreld, loosed his tongue Continue reading