Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On giving and taking offence

In another forum, I made some cutting remarks about Todd Akin, with respect to his neanderthal views on rape.  Another commentator chided me for my rudeness, and I responded that I had no tolerance for Akin's "because he spouted offensive lies in order to minimize the consequences [of his opposition to abortion in all circumstances]".  The commentator rejoined that "there’s been quite enough offensive lies on behalf of the pro-choice side to balance out" with a footnote "If one wishes to be offended. Personally, I find lies irritating but often very instructive. Rarely offensive."

All of which set me thinking about my views on offensiveness.  I've long been aware of a conflict between my general view that no one has a right not to be offended, and my equally strongly held view that some things are too offensive to be said.  I hold for example that Salman Rushdie should write what he likes about the history of the Quran, but that racist remarks are usually unacceptable.

I think this is an instance in which personal feelings are instructive.  In common with the commentator I cited above, there are few things I fnd personally offensive.  But I recall once being told that someone had described me as a "Jew bastard" and feeling rather stung by it (ethnically I am mostly Jewish).  And latterly I have been aware that I would have no tolerance whatever to any sort of insult directed at my late wife (not that anyone has been so unkind as to offer any).  This is not a matter of wishing to be offended, it's being offended without the option.

I deduce that an insult is truly offensive if directed at someone's suffering, in a way that gives them no choice but to feel offended.  African slaves and their descendants are entitled to be offended by insults targetting their race: millionaire black footballers not so much.  Victims of the holocaust and their descendants are entitled to be offended by insults against Jews: 21st century millionaire Jewish bankers not so much.  Rape victims impregnated by their attackers: yes of course they're entitled to be offended by speculation that they weren't really raped.  There is no general right not to be offended, but there is a general obligation not to offend the unfortunate in respect of their misfortune.

I am opposed to laws making it an offense to use insulting words or behaviour - sporting bodies can reasonably seek to deter such insults, but the law of the land should take a loftier view.  But I am very much in favour of the electorate voting against candidates who give offense according to my definition.  If they do it on purpose, a pox on them, and if they do it unconsciously they are surely unfit to govern.

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