January 8, 2020

What Makes an Offense Offensive? Part I

Let’s get serious. For four years I’ve been commenting on a range of behaviors, most of them verbal outbursts, that everyone seems to agree were offensive. These have included insults, put-downs, verbal wounds, snubs, slights, and other sorts of humiliations; disdainful, derisive, scornful, and contemptuous slurs; disparaging, discrediting, disrespectful, belittling, and derogatory snubs; jibes, affronts, barbs, contumely, rudeness, and outright insolent indignities.

But why? What makes them offensive? When you say, “I am offended” or “I take offense,” can you say what you are really complaining about? Before I sketch my own answer, let me put to you some thoroughly unsystematic scenarios and ask: Which ones would you label offensive? Can you describe your emotional state were these things actually to happen to you? Or if you had read about them in the newspaper? (And if you have to ask what a newspaper is, that’s one more thing to be offended over, though I don’t know at whom).

1. A teenage driver unknown to you, properly licensed, smashes his car into a tree. His blood alcohol is above the legal limit.

2. A member of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), also intoxicated, does likewise.

3. You go to a restaurant a friend has raved about. Seated, you see mouse droppings along the kitchen wall.

4. You are walking along the sidewalk on your way to a store when you pass by a naked pedestrian out for a stroll.

5. Same sidewalk, except that a clothed pedestrian, whom you don’t know, yells at you: “Hey asshole, you are really looking fat.”

6. A guest at your wedding wears a traditional tuxedo, at your request, and his choice of brown shoes.

7. A car coming toward you on the road at night fails to dim its bright beam as you pass by each other.

8. At a lecture you attend, the speaker drags her fingernail across a blackboard with a sickening screech.

9. You are on a cruise of a lifetime. Each night in the ship’s dining room the same raucous couple at the next table cackles unrestrainedly through the meal.

10. Before opening kickoff, a football player “takes a knee” while the Star Spangled Banner is being sung.

11. “According to one biographer, [the cosmologist Steven] Hawking and his wife, Jane, separated in 1990 in part because she, as a devout Christian, had become increasingly offended by his atheism.”*

12. Discussing a recent political campaign with you, your friend says of one candidate: “What an idiot,” not knowing this was your preferred candidate.

13. Summarizing various “difficulties” in the standard model of quantum physics, a current book says that many physicists hold that the “theta parameter,” a measure of the strength of the “CP [symmetry] violation of the strong force” is “offensively small.”**

14. Forgetting that you don’t drink coffee, a friend serves you a cup after a nice meal she prepared at her home.

15. In the 1930s, a British essayist boldly told his public: “To me the sight of cheese is offensive, the smell shocking, the mere thought disturbing and vexatious: to see people eating it revolts my whole being to its depths and undermines my sense of human dignity.”***

16. You are watching a scripted TV drama, and one of the characters says: “Give it to whomever gets there first.”

17. You see at the newsstand the cover of a popular magazine depicting a white man walking down the street hand in hand with a black woman.

18. A rabble rouser addresses a crowd: “Immigrants from [name a country or a region] are stupid and lazy and these [name an ethnicity] bastards should be sent back to where they came from.”

19. You’ve gone with a friend to buy a used car. Your friend advises you, in order to avoid being “gypped,” not to accept the salesman’s first offered price, but to “jew him down.” He further advises you that once you reach agreement, not to let the dealer “welsh” on the deal.

20. You are on the highway driving at the speed limit. A car has been tailgating you impatiently for several miles because of traffic but eventually it moves out from behind you and pulls alongside. The scowling driver, window down, looks across at you and shouts: “Screw you, you goddamn pathetic loser.”

21. At a lecture on Mark Twain open to all in a public lecture hall, the speaker says: “Now let’s consider Twain’s use of the word ‘nigger’ in Huckleberry Finn.”

It will not surprise you to hear that in one form or another, each of these scenes has struck someone as offensive. It will not surprise me to hear that you, being more discriminating, singled out only a few. The discrepancy may well be your elevated good sense and calm demeanor. Or it may be that you use language more carefully than others do.

The problem likely stems from the omnibus quality of the words to “offend” and to “be offensive.” These terms sweep broadly, disguising the many distinctions that we ought to be prepared to acknowledge and to navigate more peacefully through the traps of the world. It isn’t useful to claim offense whenever the other guy presents us with something (anything and everything) we dislike. For then I am offended that you order chocolate when my ice cream is vanilla.

As a guide to unpacking these scenarios, let’s look a little more closely at their range. The dictionaries tell us that “offend” has two primary and related, but distinguishable, senses:

(1) to violate or transgress some sort of norm—a legal or moral code, a custom or tradition, a rule of a game, a professional or intellectual or skilled practice or discipline.

(2) “to hurt or wound the feelings or susceptibilities of; to be displeasing or disagreeable to; to vex, annoy, displease, anger; now esp. To excite a feeling of personal annoyance, resentment, or disgust in (any one).”****

In other words, saying that a malefactor is an offender (he has committed a “criminal offense” against the law) is not the same as saying he has acted offensively by “offending me.” In most instances, I assume (I know of no studies), our psychological reactions will depend on which sort of transgression has been committed (to norm or to person). Let’s take a closer look at the scenarios.

1. A teenage driver unknown to you, properly licensed, smashes into a tree; his blood alcohol is above the legal limit. A criminal offense, a crime. We don’t seem to say or learn anything more by declaring that every criminal act is offensive. You may feel concern for the kid and even anger at the risk to others, but you’re not likely to be feeling internal angst. If you’re hypersensitive, you may feel a vague fear, but not, I think, offense.

2. A member of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), also intoxicated, does likewise. Her action is hypocritical but not offensive, though some may experience dismay or schadenfreude at the plight of a do-gooder meeting a bad end. Anger over damage to a worthy organization may settle in, at least until the driver is dropped from the rolls.

3. You go to a restaurant a friend has raved about. Seated, you see mouse droppings along the kitchen wall. An offense against the norm of cleanliness, but the feeling you have is disgust, not offense.

4. You are walking along the sidewalk on your way to a store when you pass by a naked pedestrian out for a stroll. Our nudist has offended against many norms, and you might claim to be offended at being subjected to an unwonted sight; more likely you’re suffering from irritation (or anger or shock) or perhaps even feeling amusement).

5. Same sidewalk, except that a clothed pedestrian, whom you don’t know, yells at you: “Hey asshole, you are really looking fat.” This one is personal, and if you fit the description, being offended describes the feeling or, perhaps more precisely, your feelings are hurt at being insulted and slurred. Of course, if you’re trim, the incivility and rudeness should leave you merely bemused and perhaps angry at the intrusion.

6. A guest a your wedding wears a traditional tuxedo, at your request, and his choice of brown shoes. His appearance flouts an old-fashioned norm of dress etiquette (tsk, tsk, no brown shoes with tuxedos), but that’s where the matter should rest unless you have reason to believe he knows better and has dressed that way to spite you.

7. A car coming toward you on the road at night fails to dim its bright beam as you pass by each other. The driver is thoughtless, but I wouldn’t label offensive his failure to observe rules of the road (highway etiquette).

8. At a lecture you attend, the speaker drags her fingernail across a blackboard with a sickening screech. An offense to the senses but not otherwise offensive since the speaker is not likely to drag and repeat.

9. You are on a cruise of a lifetime. Each night in the ship’s dining room the same raucous couple at the next table cackles unrestrainedly through the meal. More norm flouting that gives rise to annoyance and perhaps dyspepsia, unless there’s evidence that they know the effect and are happy to continue it—or just don’t care.

10. Before opening kickoff, a football player “takes a knee” while the Star Spangled Banner is being sung. This is by now a hoary example of an action that many view as offensive in the second sense. Taking the knee is experienced as a direct affront to stalwart patriots at the stadium. The psychological reaction is multifaceted: inducing anger, dismay, and displeasure that by not hallowing what you hold sacred, the player disrespects you. Your feelings are hurt. (Of course, the player can be equally offended if the crowd boos him as he exercises a constitutional right.)

11. “According to one biographer, [the cosmologist Stephen] Hawking and his wife, Jane, separated in 1990 in part because she, as a devout Christian, had become increasingly offended by his atheism.”* Jane may have felt aggrieved, upset, and dismayed by her husband’s belief, but unless he taunted or lied to her earlier or ridiculed her beliefs, it’s difficult to make out the logic of Jane’s complaint. Her feelings may have been seriously hurt but not because of anything he intended toward her. She owes her hurt not to his firmly held belief but to her realization that she and her husband had religious differences, making it impossible for him to share an important part of her life. If she feels anger, it springs from disappointment at the situation, not from spousal malevolence.

12. Discussing a recent political campaign with you, your friend says of one candidate: “What an idiot,” not knowing it was your preferred candidate. You can be annoyed at your friend’s opinion but you ought not claim to be taking offense, since the remark was not aimed at you, and it will become a lonely world if you feel queasy or wounded every time someone disagrees with you politically.

13. Summarizing various “difficulties” in the standard model of quantum physics, a current book says that many physicists hold that the “theta parameter,” a measure of the strength of the “CP [symmetry] violation of the strong force” is “offensively small.”** A wholesale misuse of the term. The physicists who speak that way were trying to say that the parameter’s value didn’t fit into their theory and the numerical mismatch bothered them.

14. Forgetting that you don’t drink coffee, a good friend serves you a cup after a nice meal she served at her home. At worst the tender of coffee was thoughtless; it seems a stretch to suppose her memory lapse is a sign of not respecting you enough to remember every last detail of your likes and dislikes.

15. In the 1930s, Clive Bell, a British essayist, boldly told his public: “To me the sight of cheese is offensive, the smell shocking, the mere thought disturbing and vexatious: to see people eating it revolts my whole being to its depths and undermines my sense of human dignity.”*** Another example of disgust, but, as Bell recognized in this same paragraph, not offensive in the second sense in any way that counts: “Reason forbids me to mistake a physical reaction for a moral judgment.”

16. You are watching a scripted television drama, and one of the characters says: “Give it to whomever will get there first.” Some people do get furious when others, especially role models and authority figures, mangle grammar (you saw that the word should be “who,” right?, not “whom”; and seriously, don’t you feel a bit of a frisson when a subtitle reads “alright”?). But the only offense is in the first sense, against the language.

17. You see at the newsstand the cover of a popular magazine depicting a white man walking down the street hand in hand with a black woman. I suspect few today would admit to being offended, though the story was quite otherwise in some southern communities in the 1940s and into the 1950s; movie censors nixed mixed pix. Today the claim that such a scene is offensive will itself be considered offensive.

18. A rabble rouser addresses a crowd: “Immigrants from [name a country or a region] are stupid and lazy and these [name an ethnicity] bastards should be sent back to where they came from.” Unquestionably offensive in the second sense; it’s a disparagement that gives rise to resentment in the person included. But to you?

19. You’ve gone with a friend to buy a used car. Your friend advises you, in order to avoid being “gypped,” not to accept the salesman’s first offered price, but to “jew him down.” He further advises you that once the deal is sealed, not to let the dealer “welsh out.” These are quintessentially offensive remarks, disparaging and degrading to those who fall within their ambit. Is it the case that others than those included within these terms can be equally affronted? In other words, do these sorts of remarks substantiate a claim that some utterances are “objectively offensive”? That’s a harder question and one that I will reserve for a later posting. They are certainly offensive in the first sense as well (norm violations of polite discourse), just as the whole historical range of racist and sexist jokes are. But it is not clear (at least to me) that those not within the ambit of slurs have the same hurt feelings or suffer the same resentment. In other words, there may be degrees of offensiveness. This example also poses the question whether we should respect a historical statute of limitations on the origins of words.

20. You are on the highway driving at the speed limit. A car has been tailgating you impatiently for several miles because of traffic but eventually it moves out from behind you and pulls alongside. The scowling driver, window down, looks across at you and shouts: “Screw you, you goddamn pathetic loser.” I suspect that the other driver’s actions would upset many people in the situation because the speaker suggests by his words and tone that he is rightfully criticizing you, that is, suggesting that you were somehow at fault. To be hectored directly and personally when blameless fits well within the meaning of offensive in the second sense.

21. At a lecture on Mark Twain open to all in a public lecture hall, the speaker says: “Now let’s consider Twain’s use of the word ‘nigger’ in Huckleberry Finn.” Problems such as this one have struck a nerve across the country, and many people have argued that anyone who uses the “N-word,” no matter the reason, is by definition speaking offensively. I have argued to the contrary: offense depends on the nature of the use. Here the word is directed at no one and is not used as a slur. In a setting in which that very issue is on the table for discussion, it is spoken to name the word that is commonly though not exclusively used as a slur.

These observations lead to further conclusions. To offend in the sense in which it is a fair question whether the public has a right to intrude (because of the offensiveness), the utterance or action must be aimed at a particular person or group, function as a disparagement or belittlement on the basis of certain characteristics, be intended (or be reasonably likely) to hurt a person’s feelings, and cause the offended person to resent the offensive act or expression. That’s a mouthful, but at bottom I think it means that you have to wind up with wounded feelings, not just raw anger, dismay, or even disgust. That those feelings must have been wounded by attacking the victim’s dignity. That his dignity must be insulted in one of a limited number of ways centering largely on one’s personal and immutable characteristics. You may revel in your vast and varied necktie collection, but I don’t think I offend if I attack the necktie you’re wearing as ugly. But if I attack your ethnicity, I have sent a spear deep into an essential part of you.

And there’s more, as I’ve indicated. Relevant questions will often include how a word is used and what a word means or by usage is fairly taken to mean. We must also understand the relation of the person taking offense to the offending deed: does the belittling jab embrace her as within its scope or are there some sorts of remarks that are so obviously odious that they constitute objective offensiveness? How direct must the offensive act be? Advertising your home for sale with the claim that it’s a short walk to the train station “for able-bodied people” may be insensitive, perhaps even offensive, but the simple statement that it’s a short walk is not necessarily the same thing? All this and more needs to be spelled out and refined. Peering dimly into the murk of these thoughts, I see a shadowy “offensiveness taxonomy” seeking focus. I’ll be interested to know what you think, as I begin the task.

*Quoting John Horgan, The End of Science (Addison-Wesley, 1996), pp. 94–95.
**Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math (Basic Books, 2018), p. 71.
***Clive Bell, Civilization (Penguin, 1938), pp. 80–81.
****Oxford English Dictionary