August 31, 2015

An Offense Sense?

Like you, I’ve been offended, off and on, by one thing or another, on this day or that, all my life. But I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what any of those things were. Which is part of the point. The offending words, the offensive acts, seem an enormity when first heard or observed, but they fade and then vanish, at least for most of us, most of the time. When I began teaching First Amendment issues (a long time ago), and asked students to think about whether there should be legal consequences for offensive words and concepts, I saw it as an intellectual problem and never particularly stopped to ask myself whether I was offended by what we read, or offended that some people seek to offend others, or why anyone gets offended, anyway. They just did. It’s natural. Of course.

Then one semester, in the space of a couple of weeks, two students, in different courses, accused me of offending them. This had never happened.

The first student was in my constitutional law class. The main question that day was whether subjecting men but not women to a military draft violates equal protection. The class got into a lively discussion. One student offered a practical reason for exempting women. Suppose, he said, the draft board tried to haul in a father and mother. Who would take care of the children? I prodded: Was he saying that the woman should stay home because mothers make better parents? Yes, said he, setting off an even more lively conversation. With the issue unresolved, the class ended, and a male student who had remained silent came to the front to say: “I think you offended me today.” In what way? I wondered. “I’m gay,” he said, “and my partner and I are thinking of adopting a child.” This was in the early ’90s, when it was unusual to talk of such things. I couldn’t figure out how I had offended. The subject of same-sex couples had never come up. “You said women make better parents than men,” he said, in a flush. He was clearly upset — and not particularly mollified when I pointed out that I had said no such thing, and that all sorts of his classmates had expressed all sorts of opinions about that claim. Where had he been during the discussion? He walked off in what seemed a huff.

The second student was in my writing seminar. We were studying lead paragraphs. I asked students to react to a two-page handout of newspaper “ledes” I had collected over the years. This student reacted, all right, though again, after class. He accused me of anti-Semitism. That set my mind racing. What could I possibly have done? He pointed to one of the ledes. Here it is, from a UPI story in 1987:

A rabbi with 11 children who claimed he was a fertility doctor but impaired his patients’ ability to have sex pleaded guilty to practicing medicine without a license Friday and was sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison.

The problem? It mentioned a rabbi. There were no ledes, he said, about priests. Why was I singling out rabbis? He was visibly angry, mightily offended. The accusations got wilder. My explanation didn’t satisfy him: this lede was meant to be contrasted with another that also stitched together numerous tiny facts (and omitted others, in this case, that the rabbi weighed 350 pounds, a detail told later in the story).  My student walked away vowing to ignore the sentence. And me. And the course.

That started me thinking about taking offense in a new light. Why were these fellows so worked up? Was I tone deaf or did they have preternatural hearing? Is there an “offense sense,” and was I missing it, or did they have an over-active receptor? I don’t know. I’m still working on it.

August 31, 2015