4 Misconceptions About the Nature of Offense
Here are four common sense assumptions about giving and taking offense that I think are fundamentally mistaken and which atheists need to argue against:
“You have every right to be offended, but you don’t have the right to censor others just because you’re offended.”
“You cannot blame people for getting offended by satire since satirists aim to offend people.”
“We liberal secular atheists cannot blame religious people for getting offended by satires of their religions unless we are going to say we cannot be offended by satires which are racist, anti-semitic, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise upsetting to us.”
“What is offensive to a given person is just a matter of feelings or taste and you cannot judge other people’s feelings or taste.”
So what is wrong with these views? What does it mean to rightly take offense or incorrectly take offense?
Morally Rightly Taking Offense
Taking offense is not just a matter of taste or arbitrary feeling. It is not the same thing as being annoyed or irritated or flat out disliking something in any other non-specific way.
Rather, offense purports to be (and should therefore be judged as properly felt only when it really is) a fitting moral emotional reaction to being illegitimately personally disrespected in ways that are abusive, harassing, defaming, coercive, or otherwise undermining of your (or another’s) basic dignity, moral rights, and/or legal rights. A proper and virtuous sense of dignity does not allow oneself or one’s genuine rights to be trampled upon. A proper concern for the rights of others does not allow them to have their rights trampled either. One should feel offended when such indignities are truly inflicted.
The right feeling of offense is both (a) a proper cognitive recognition of the truth that one has been wrongly slighted and (b) in many cases a helpful part of the psychological process that motivates us to take actions which justly rectify such slights.
Last November atheists attending Skepticon IV were morally and legally right to be offended when they discovered that they were illegally barred from a gelato shop on account of their atheism. Their offended reaction, and that of atheists online, was a way to properly and truthfully feel the indignity done to them as the injustice that it was. And we were right to be motivated to take action to protest both the ban and the bigoted attitudes of the gelato shop owner which led to it in the first place. His actions and his attitudes were both objectively offensive. Offense was the right emotional and cognitive response both in terms of properly appreciating the wrongness of the discrimination against us atheists and in terms of motivating our assertion of our rights, and warning others who would take them lightly that we would make a big deal of it if they did.
Morally Wrongly Taking Offense
But in cases when someone has not been illegitimately disrespected, it is oversensitive and arrogant to take offense. In those cases, you do not have a moral right to feel offended. In fact, I would say morally you are obligated not to feel offended in such cases, but instead to feel appreciation for the limits of your rights to immunity from criticism. It is a misperception of the truth about values to feel offense when you have not been treated inappropriately.
Of course you (correctly) have the legal right to feel offense even in many cases in which it is not morally appropriate, but you should not have the right to legislate that others respect your illegitimate feelings of offense by demanding that they never offend you in those ways. And both socially and legally, no one should be coerced to refrain from actions that do not legitimately offend others.
And people should even have legal rights to be actually morally offensive in some ways. Not all forms of disrespect should be policed through law but only those which threaten other people’s full, free, genuine, uncoerced participation in their society according to their own consciences.
When you regularly feel unjustly disrespected in cases where you have not in fact been treated poorly, then your oversensitivity and arrogance are more than just immediate feeling responses, but blameworthy character dispositions (to the extent that they are in your power to change). And when you are justifiably offended morally, but not in ways that should be made illegal, if you try to use the arm of the law or other coercive institutional measures to avenge yourself on your violators you become troublingly authoritarian and intolerably hostile to healthy freedom of expression.
If you take offense illicitly, when you are not morally or rationally warranted to do so, and you then do something immoral or illegal in your unjustified anger, then you are culpable for your character which leads to your behavior, as much as for your actions. Then those whom you have wronged have an interest in determining whether the oversensitivity and arrogance which led to your action were just impulsive feelings which you regret having let control you or whether those traits are vices, i.e., character dispositions which can be expected to lead to more immoral and illegal actions in the future.
So, when you take offense when you shouldn’t and you do something immoral and illegal to try to harm me or my group, and then beg for forgiveness when you get caught (risking possibly severe consequences for your wrongdoing), I want to know that you repudiate your poor judgment about when to take offense before I consider you and me to be in a copacetic relationship again.
Why I Didn’t Forgive the Gelato Guy for Being Offended
For me to forgive you fully, I need to see that you regret your wrong action and your wrong feeling, and I need to see that you are willing to introspect about whether your wrong feeling is an actual disposition to feel wrongly which needs to be actively changed lest it harm me again the next time I trust you. If you recognize that your wrong feeling really is a vicious disposition to regularly harm people the way you did, then you need to conscientiously resolve to change before I forgive you. If you don’t request forgiveness for the right thing and resolve to change in the right ways, I am under no obligation to forgive you. In fact, it would be foolish for me to do so.
This was why I supported not forgiving Andy Drennan, the gelato shop owner who discriminated against atheists but only apologized for how he reacted to feeling offended and not for being offended by an atheist satire in the first place. I don’t think he had a moral right to be offended. Irritated? I can understand that. But not offended. And this is an important distinction.
Let me now turn to explain how I apply these general moral considerations about the nature of offense and when it is appropriate and inappropriate to the murkier particulars of this empirical case to make distinctions about what is morally properly offensive, and not, in satire and elsewhere.
Satirists are regularly willing to piss people off. The nature of satire is to use parody with some degree of mockery to highlight absurdities in ideas, in current events, in institutions, in social conventions, in human behaviors, etc. Satire is a performative way of bringing to light truths about the logical or practical inadequacies of whatever is being satirized. It is a species of art and critical reasoning which has distinct (and often unique) prospects for exposing harsh truths that may not be as well articulated in other modes of expression. In this way it is a valuable tool in the critical search for the truth and the good.
But should people be offended by it? When is it offensive or not to mock people? Where should we draw the line?
Satire vs. Personal Encounters
In non-satirical social encounters, it is offensive to mock people in a malicious or critical spirit. If I want to criticize your ideas, as much as possible I should stick to focusing on the wrongness of your ideas without personal attacks. If I make it insultingly personal, this is a bullying and irrational attempt to manipulate your emotions and coerce your agreement. It’s anti-rational and antithetical to concern for your abilities to think freely and to reason your way to the truth based on evidence, because it attempts to employ non-rational leverage.
When I personally insult you in ways that are not mutually understood to be playful but which have explicit or implicit harms to your psyche, I treat you in a way that undermines your dignity and is immorally disrespectful. You have a moral right to be offended. And if this attack undermines your ability to feel like you can safely exercise your full rights in society to pursue your conception of the good to the maximum, I offend you in ways that might rise to the level of being legally addressable too.
Mocking Groups Legitimately and Illegitimately, for the Sake of Truth
But if I satirize a group’s ideas or behaviors which flow from a group’s debatable ideas and conventions, then I am operating not on the level of personal insult but on the level of criticism of forms and institutions. If I satirize a powerful individual, then I engage in a potentially vital form of dissenting from a potentially coercive influence in society. In these ways, as long as I am not fundamentally malicious and subversive to people’s basic rights or basic dignities, I am merely critical of influential ideas and practices in a way that love of truth and the good justifies.
And if, on an interpersonal level, you and I tease each other in good natured ways that do not harm or have the potential to effectually relegate each other to inferior statuses, then this is harmless play.
On the other hand, when dealing with especially disempowered groups and individuals—on individual, social, and even satirical levels—one must be very careful that one’s mockery does not reinforce actual moral and legal disrespect that the members of that vulnerable group suffer in real life detrimental ways.
But, I do not think I have the right to be offended when, say, South Park ruthlessly satirizes those of us self-assured outspoken intellectual atheists. If I disagree with a particular criticism this may irritate me the way any expression of an idea I think is false irritates me. But it should not be personal even though I am a serious atheist and even though they are satirizing the ardent atheist’s identity, values, and viewpoints. Even as they challenge deep parts of my thought and identity, I should be able to distance myself from these ideas and this identity conceptually, be capable of criticizing or laughing any flaws which are helpfully revealed, and ideally be able to improve my thinking and self-understanding in light of insightful criticisms. Humor can be enlightening in this way. In fact, my personal thinking about atheism and atheistic identity has actually been especially improved by satirists like Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
Between friends and in formal impersonal contexts, joking can be a uniquely valuable way to make important truths about ourselves, our institutions, our ideas, our practices, or our values crystal clear to us. Sometimes we even learn and internalize a harsh truth the least painfully when we are induced to laugh at it than when it is demanded that we accept it as defeat in a logical debate. Our minds can be more stubborn than our senses of humor when it comes time to capitulate to an uncomfortable idea. And satire which is simply wrong as a point of truth can be either laughed off or shrugged off depending on how funny or not it is on its own terms.
We should take truth-based criticisms and satirizations of both ideas and ourselves at arms’ length insofar as they are not morally or legally malicious and do not constitute a real life threat to our real life dignity or real life rights.
The Moral Right to Offend the Religious
But what about the religious? Don’t they have the moral right to get offended when their beliefs or their revered figures are flagrantly mocked in public?
No. They have the moral right to feel irritated and they have the legal right to feel offended. But if they try to use moral or legal means to prevent their ideas, identities, institutions, values, or leaders from being satirized then they are saying it is immoral for others to subject these things to harsh scrutiny.
This is because the only bases which they could possibly have for treating these things as off limits to criticism, including mockery, is the authority of their religious traditions. Their religious traditions may explicitly or implicitly guide them to never treat certain things with irreverence, critical thought, or mockery. If that is the case, it is understandable that they feel personally or communally bound not to do so. I think it is bad and unhealthy for them to do this since putting anything off limits to criticism and mockery stifles their likelihood of rejecting or improving any inadequate ideas they might have. But it is their prerogative morally and legally insofar as people are morally and legally free to be mistaken and to hold false moral ideas whose harms to themselves and others are sufficiently limited in scope.
But the moment that the religious insist that their gods or ideas or values or revered leaders or institutions or books, etc. be off limits from intellectual or artistic or interpersonal criticisms (including ones which have extremely sharp and irreverent humorous edges to them) lest they be offended, they are insisting that their traditions and beliefs, etc., are morally in principle above reproach. This demands implicitly of all outsiders to their tradition that we treat their tradition’s attitudes about what is sacred, inviolable, and never to be criticized as our own. This effectively demands that we take their religious judgments as our own moral guideline and to let them restrict our own abilities to pass moral and intellectual judgment according to our own consciences.
In effect this demands us to adopt their religious values as our own. This is too much for them to demand of us. This is a violation of our own moral and legal rights to intellectual and moral conscience. To be offended at our exercise of our own rights to criticism (including artistic or intellectually forms of mockery that have the potential to be insightful) is to assert a moral claim against our consciences. But our consciences should feel innocent here. The religious have no right to make such claims on our consciences, either morally or legally. Therefore, they should not take offense—no matter how irritated they may be or how substantively wrong they may think our implicitly or explicitly made claims may be.
Atheists (and others) have the moral right to critically satirize religious ideas, values, institutions, people, identities, practices, etc. The religious may get irritated as they wish. They may respond with their own satires or vigorous intellectual criticisms if they wish. But morally they do not have the right to complain we have assaulted their dignity or disrespected them simply because we criticize them or use impersonal humor as part of doing so. Therefore they have no moral right to be offended. To claim otherwise is to claim that non-adherents to a religion are bound to respect that religion’s precepts about sacredness even in violation of the non-adherent’s own conscience. That is a morally unconscionable demand.
Just to wrap up the gelato affair (3 months late!): this is why I didn’t think Andy Drennan was within his moral rights to be offended. This is why I thought he needed to apologize for more than just discriminating against atheists by denying us access to his shop. This is why I thought he had to stop implying that his offended reaction was itself morally understandable. It is obviously psychologically understandable, in that it is normal for people to get offended when they really have no moral right to. But it is not something morally approvable and unless he recognizes this, he goes on assuming he has the right to get offended by valid forms of atheistic criticism. And then he has learned nothing and may continue to be part of the immoral dominance of religious people who silence atheistic critics by illicit claims to a right not to be offended.
A follow up post for those unconvinced by this one that offense needs to be considered a moral category: Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral