In Defense of Taking Offense

As predominantly pro-social animals, humans are quite often conflict averse. And innumerable forms of social pressure, all the way from authoritarian patriarchy to liberal multiculturalism, encourage people to be as polite as possible as the standard default. This is why letting loose and offending people can feel so incredibly liberating at times.

Insofar as our aversions to conflict restrain us from unjustifiably harming one another, they are a good thing. But insofar as they hinder us from engaging in difficult discussions or actions that could improve our thinking or our treatment of one another, they are detrimental.

And conflict aversion probably much more often than not aids the status quo over improvement. It is inherently conservative in a deeply problematic way because it privileges just keeping things the way they are over having the inevitable conflicts that will arise with airing of grievances and values differences. “Go along to get along” is the rarely spoken commandment that we are all supposed to adhere to.

So in this context, it is often implied that you should only get upset if you really can’t help yourself. If you can find a way to rationalize or roll with the way things are then it’s incumbent on you to adjust yourself to them rather than speak up and cause a fuss. If you express frustration or offense or in any other ways outright reject others’ beliefs, values, or socially accepted behaviors, you are the one making a scene, being disagreeable, and imposing on others. And with a perverted form of stoicism you are judged to be betraying your weakness by letting things get to you.

Because apparently the true mark of strength is conformism. And apparently being offended is only appropriate when existing social norms are contravened; not when existing social norms themselves harm you. And apparently existing social norms never unjustly impose on anyone; it’s those who want to change social norms who only ever imposed on anyone. And apparently proactively looking for injustices that may be being overlooked is bad because it is “looking to take offense”; where this is construed always as “looking to introduce conflict where otherwise there wouldn’t have to be any”.

These implicit attitudes, whether owned up to or not, are what any moral, social, cultural, or political reformers are up against. And it’s an iniquitously stacked deck.

“But, Dan,” some of my critics may want to say to me right now, “I thought you would want things this way? Don’t you fetishize civility as a greater good than all others?” Let me take a moment to clarify.

I have always maintained that offense is not only a morally approvable emotion but itself one of the key emotions through which moral judgment itself happens. In other words, part of how we psychologically process and socially express the appropriate anger at what is evil is through the emotion of offense. I have just argued that we are morally obligated not to express our objections in the form of abusive, bullying, authoritarian behavior or language choices. I have always argued that we can level strong, precise, evidence-based moral charges at people’s behavior or ideas. I have just also argued that it is only fair and psychologically helpful to getting through to people to criticize behaviors first and people’s whole characters second, and to do so in a spirit of education rather than recrimination.

I also think that this a matter of being truer and fairer in how we proportion our anger and where exactly we direct it. I really do think that most moral failures are due to ignorance, poor reasoning, weakness, and, most importantly, culturally systemic prejudices and practices that go well beyond the maliciousness of any given person. Comparatively little of what is wrong in what we do is willfully malicious. The good wisdom of Stoicism is to keep these things in mind and to focus compassionately on helping erring people distance themselves from their mistakes, rather than helping to wed them to them. If you blast your anger at the person as though they are inseparable from the action you make them defensive and more likely to defend the action that they are now all the more firmly identified with. If you separate them from their mistake, you help them create the psychological distance they need to reject their mistake as something not really representative of them and disown it. So, criticizing their mistakes separate from attacking their person is usually the best first resort. Only when someone insists stubbornly on owning what is wrong in themselves is it worth it to try to shame them by saying that they have a fundamental character flaw. (I develop the themes of this paragraph at length in my post “Intent Is Not Magic, But It Still Matters”.)

“Ah, that’s right, Dan,” my critics from the other side might be saying now, “You think that in the name of civility we have to kowtow to oversensitive people and never say so much as a naughty word lest someone might take offense to it.” But this is also wrong. First of all, my problem is not with fucking “naughty words”. It is with interpersonal abusiveness. Name calling falls under that. Using other “dirty” doesn’t words necessarily. But more centrally, I have argued very clearly and extensively that no one has a moral right to take offense at just anything whatsoever. Sometimes people claim offense and we can argue to them that they are wrong to do so. We can and should respectfully challenge the rectitude of their feelings in such cases by discussing whether they are merited by, and proportioned to, the facts of the situation.

I have always constantly defended the right to criticize those beliefs, values, and other things that people identify with so strongly that they become psychologically part of their very identities themselves. I have made clear that their citing “offense” is not by itself cause to concede what you did was wrong. I have just argued for the patience, compassion, and human decency to help people critically analyze their beliefs, values, and identities, by not making them defensive with personal assaults on them for who or what they are or for their intellectual mistakes, etc. And I have argued that we should not give them good reason to claim offense as an excuse to dismiss us, right when their brains are just dying for an excuse to do so, by actually being abusive, bullying, or otherwise imposing towards them.

But I digress. If we are people who want to really get things as intellectually, ethically, socially, culturally, and legally right as we can so that all people can be empowered to flourish as much as possible then we need to be proactively critical of our ideas, values, attitudes, and behaviors. We live in societies whose thinking and whose structures have long been determined in deep ways by fundamentally imperfect processes of social evolution that have gotten so many things wrong for so long that sometimes it seems like a miracle we get anything right. We have marvelously impressive brains and yet in their starting condition they are in many ways systematically unfit to accomplish what they need to in order for us all to maximally thrive. They require an immense amount of education and socialization. They require that we learn from and incorporate the wisdom of literally millennia of accumulated experience by the species and, even harder, that they unlearn whole patterns of deeply ingrained, culturally conditioned thinking and behaving that are either outdated or were always wrong.

As a result of this anyone who is a critical thinker will find a lot to criticize in what everyone around them thinks and does. And this includes being critical of countless dominant social values, attitudes, behaviors, and norms that require anything from a little more fine tuning to wholesale reassessment. And that means actively looking for things that are wrong. And things that are wrong are things it is appropriate to have negative, “offended”, feelings about. Or, at least to speak up about wherever it might be productive, rather than to just go along to get along and let things go on in their unproductive, counter-productive, or unjustly productive way.

Of course often those who benefit from the status quo will be inclined more than anyone to balk at the prospect of changing things. They have a gut level realization that changing what is for them advantageous means risking losing advantages. It is in their shortsighted interests inherently to make being offended by anything that does not contravene existing norms into a sign of weakness. For as long as those disadvantaged by the status quo internalize that norm, they shame themselves into not standing up for themselves. And for as long as not-being-offended and seeing-nothing-wrong are highly rewarded virtues, people not harmed by various injustices quite often see no reason to go look for them and cause trouble. This perpetuates generalized passivity in favor of the status quo.

And, finally, no one expresses greater ease with conflict than the beneficiaries of the status quo when they are offended and pushing back against those who challenge it. Why? Probably because when one is reacting in defense of the existing social norms that one unquestioningly believes in, one feels the full sanction of morality and society to vent their defensive hostility. This does not even feel to them like something supposedly weak and reactive like “taking offense”.

But it is.

And, often, it is so very unjustly.

None of this is a recommendation that we counterproductively alienate or demonize everyone around us all day long over every possible imperfection we get attuned to and make life even more miserable for others and ourselves. Nor is it a recommendation that we read every one’s words and deeds in the least charitable light, with constant confirmation bias in favor of seeing injustice everywhere. And neither is it even to say that social norms are monolithically always on the side of one particular group over another. Some of the dominant norms contradict each other.

But it is to say that there is nothing wrong with critically looking for flaws, even where one could train oneself to simply never see them and simply get by. In fact, it’s necessary this be done as a constant project. It is necessary we seek out the injustices if we are to see them and no one should be blamed for refusing to be blind to all but the most unavoidably painful. How to be most productive about patiently and efficiently working with people and institutions in their imperfections and without having acrimonious relationships is the hard question of where one goes from there. Obviously I’m not in favor of slash and burn or nuclear strategies for creating change. But count me squarely against those who want to shut down the proactive pursuit of problems to fix with gaslighting charges of emotional weakness and other character flaws.

To give credit where it’s due, this post is based in part on reflections inspired by Miri Mogilevsky’s must-read post, Shit People Say To People Who Care About Shit.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • 3lemenope

    But count me squarely against those who want to shut down the proactive pursuit of problems to fix with gaslighting charges of emotional weakness and other character flaws.

    This is an important point, but it comes with its own complications.

    Notably, not all complaints of harm are equivalent, and some subset of all claims of harm are illegitimate for the purposes of disclosing a harm for which there exists a remedy. The private experience of discomfort or pain or emotional harm is not in itself sufficient to constitute a claim that has moral purchase on others, though it obviously does the lion’s share of the work. The self-report can suffer from many defects; lack of scale or proportion or experience, dissembling, or by being the conscious correlate of a learned reaction.

    This is why, for example, every time a child hits their funny bone, stubs a toe, or gets a splinter in the finger and earnestly believes that their discomfort is incomparable and interminable agony for which the world should be stopped so it can be addressed immediately, adults do not take the asserted claim of harm at face value (they do not react as though their child has been horribly injured when confronted with such an occurrence). The child lacks the requisite experience with harm to place their discomfort on an appropriate scale so as to be comprehensible to others.

    The most problematic in the context of social discourse is the report of harm that comes from being the experience of a learned reaction. This is because the human brain is a remarkable device at seeking and associating all entities that seem related to a topic at issue; if a gay person experiences incidences of homophobia and they seem to generally proceed from Christian persons, pretty soon that person is going to associate Christianity with homophobia (which is totes legit, so far as it goes). Sometimes, though, the association is stronger than is justified by underlying facts or experiences, and the person then comes to act as though all expressions of Christianity are, perforce, homophobic, because they are Christian. Then, reports of harm by that person that proceed from experiencing Christianity become partly unreliable.

    So, while attempts to emotionally manipulate people into giving up their grievances is a horrible practice, it does not follow that every grievance is automatically legitimate.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Indeed. That’s why I put in the whole section about being able to dispute people’s claims to offense rationally when one thinks they’re unwarranted. The problem that there is this default that generally being offended should be a last resort or only for cases where you can’t suck it up, etc. I am trying to say that, no, since there are frequently injustices, even small ones, people shouldn’t be shy about actively looking for them and being upset by them. They should be careful to be productive and to pick their spots strategically in complaining, but they should also not be subject to default assumptions that taking offense is a flaw.

    • 3lemenope

      That’s why I put in the whole section about being able to dispute people’s claims to offense rationally when one thinks they’re unwarranted.

      The problem with that is that from the perspective of the person asserting the claim, it can’t be unwarranted (granting provisionally that the person is reporting honestly). The only way to move an experiencer away from believing their experience is apodictically true is to try to show them that the context in which the claim is situated makes the harm claimed intersubjectively much less serious than the manner in which it was experienced subjectively.

      When that means pointing out that a splinter in the finger is less serious than a broken bone, the task is easy. It’s much harder to do this when the harm is more ephemeral or its causes more slippery, since at some level in order to assert that such a claim is illegitimate one must in essence claim that the person making it and demanding that it be taken seriously is lacking in emotional perspective.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      It is difficult indeed to challenge people’s feelings, but it’s not impossible. You just have to do it in the manner you describe, bring them to a larger contextual perspective.

  • wfenza

    Dan,

    I think you’ve missed one of the main criticisms of the “looking for things to be offended about” mindset. Mainly – it sort of makes you unbearable to be around. Overt negativity is exhausting. I think you are correct in that there are no ethical problems with critically examining all situations for flaws, but it makes you a total downer.

    Further, the ability to make the best of a bad situation, I feel, is a critically important skill to human flourishing. A person who can be happy in only a perfect situation will never be happy, and happiness is my general gauge of well-being. While I agree that moral creatures out to critically examine each situation for flaws, but I don’t necessarily equate “identifying flaws” with “taking offense.” There is a difference between identifying an imperfection and “expressing frustration or offense.” On some level, we must be able to acknowledge flaws, but remain stoic about it.

    Your essay seems to acknowledge that one should only speak up regarding imperfections “where it might be productive,” which I wholeheartedly agree with, but that still leaves the issue of – how should we feel inside about these imperfections? Consistent with your essay (linked from this one) that we can hold others accountable for their feelings – doesn’t a rational person have a need to strike a balance between imperfections worth getting upset/offended over and imperfections that are safe to ignore (temporarily and in context, of course)?

    I guess my criticism boils down to the idea that there is a difference between identifying flaws and “taking offense.” While I agree that there is no moral case to be made against identifying flaws, I think that there is a moral case to be made against taking offense in certain circumstances.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I agree. The post was originally shorter and ended with the pithier one liners. And then I tried to write the last couple paragraphs when I came back to this as a way of saying, “but we still shouldn’t become insufferable people.” I tried to say that while still affirming that looking for the injustices is always a good thing and there is nothing wrong with the feelings of negativity to those injustices since I think it is only appropriate to register recognition of an evil with a negative feeling. I hoped that the numerous parts in the post where I implore people to be compassionate to others and to direct their anger at systemic forces instead of people would work with the ending qualifications about picking one’s spots to be productive and not make everyone (even yourself) only more miserable would do the work of providing balance.

    • wfenza

      Do you have a different post that relates to the idea that “it is only appropriate to register recognition of an evil with a negative feeling”? If not, I would love to see one. It’s somewhat of an intuitive point, but presents its own issues, most notably because negative feelings (even so-called “justified” ones) seem to work against maximal human flourishing in a variety of circumstances. Or perhaps you could direct me to someone else’s writing on the topic that you find persuasive?

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Robert Solomon has an article on anger that influenced me on this point, but I’m not sure what the reference for it. It is a point I need to elaborate on at some point. I am trying to think of a place where I defend the point rather than just articulate it with examples of why I find it so compelling. Essentially, a reason that matters to me is that it seems like there is something qualitatively different between a sociopath who learns a moral rule without feeling it but just accepts it as a convention for not pissing off the people around him and yielding excessive conflicts, etc. as opposed to someone who feels that rule and the reasons for it emotionally. It seems like if I read about a rape and murder and feel repulsion I am registering and processing the wrongness of the murder in a whole deeper way that grasps the truth of that wrongness more firmly and completely than say the sociopath who dispassionately registers that there was a violation of conventions. It seems to me like internally knowing the badness of badness involves in part, a feeling of badness, not just a cognitive recognition.

  • Kristofer Rhodes

    I agree with you that it is important to be offended by offensive things. But, perhaps strangely, I don’t think the _language_ of offense is very useful. “I’m offended by that” doesn’t tell anyone about anything except how you feel. How you feel may be important, but it’s not often very persuasive. And even when it is persuasive, it’s persuasive for reasons that could have been given a more interesting and illuminating articulation.

    So instead of saying I’m offended by something, I’ll articulate what it is about the thing that makes me feel offended. I won’t even use the word “offended” since my goal is to show that the thing is offensive, not simply to display my own offendedness.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I fear you might be right, given how many people dismiss “offense” as just arbitrary feeling. We may be losing a valuable word through either too many people making false moral claims or mixing in their dislike claims with moral offense claims, etc. I’m trying to preserve the language and the expression of offense because it has real value.


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