On (Not) Avoiding Giving Offense

Irfan’s recent discussions about the Charlie Hebdo affair and Islamic debates about iconoclasm have brought me back to a question that I’ve wondered about in the past and not come up with any satisfying general answer to: when and why should the fact that something I do will offend someone give me sufficient reason not to do it? When I was an undergraduate studying in Greece, the conventional wisdom among our group was that it was considered very offensive in Greece, and in many other parts of Europe, to recline with your feet up on a chair. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but everybody in the group believed it simply because a few apparently informed people insisted on it so strongly and seemed so stressed out whenever anybody put their feet up on a chair that we all assumed it must be true. Late one night in a hotel lobby, I was sitting with the one member of the group who was pretty universally loathed for a number of reasons, both good and bad. We were talking about something or other when he decided to get comfortable and put his feet up on the chair in front of him. I quickly tried to stop him, reminding him that people in Greece considered it very rude. He then treated me to a lecture on why cultural relativism was false, and how he used to be a cultural relativist when he was an anthropology major, but that realizing the falsity of cultural relativism was one of the reasons he’d decided to become a classicist and study the ancient Greeks, who were so much wiser about these things. Since cultural relativism is false, he reasoned, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with putting his feet up on the chair; the Greeks have their fussy conventions, but by nature there is nothing wrong with treating a chair as a stool.

Now, I was even less philosophically astute then than I am now, so I didn’t make what I would now think of as the obvious rejoinder: the thought that you should avoid offending and upsetting people for no good reason does not presuppose or entail “cultural relativism” or any such thing, and the fellow was just weaving a sophomoric, pseudo-sophisticated rationalization for being insensitive and lazy (I don’t remember what I said in response, but it was probably something likewise sophomoric and pseudo-sophisticated, though of course more true). I take it to be fairly apparent that, ceteris paribus, the fact that some action of mine will offend people tells against my doing that action. But of course, cetera are often not paria, and while I’m pretty certain that the marginally greater comfort of resting my feet on a chair does not defeat the reason I have to avoid offending and upsetting people who are showing me great hospitality, I’m likewise pretty certain that in a vast range of cases the sheer fact that someone will find my words or actions offensive by itself gives me no reason to speak or act otherwise. Since I loathe the tendency of some purportedly neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists to simply wave their hands at points like these and talk about the importance of judgment and the fine discernment of practical salience by the virtuous person, I’d like to be able to say something more. What can we say?

One thing I think we can say is that when we can accomplish the same goals by means of one action that offends and another that doesn’t, and the non-offensive alternative isn’t significantly more costly, inefficient, burdensome, or the like, we have a pretty decisive reason to prefer the non-offensive alternative (I’m ignoring cases in which another person is being disrespectful or otherwise provocative, in which case we might even have reason to prefer the offensive alternative). That’s just another way of saying that, ceteris paribus, we should avoid offending people. To take an easy case, if I can say “excuse me, I’m sorry” when rushing past someone in an unavoidably obtrusive way, I should do that rather than simply being obtrusive and obnoxious. Less straightforward, but still sensible, I think: if a textbook can educate students about Islam just as well without depicting Muhammad, then the offense that the images would cause gives its authors and editors good reason to refrain from depicting him. But these cases are easy, at least to my mind, because as I see these scenarios there is nothing at all at stake; the only significant difference is that one alternative offends and the other does not. But when it comes to, say, kissing my girlfriend in public or uttering the sentence “Islam is false” during a conversation in a public space, I frankly don’t care whether anyone is offended (I’m tempted to say: that’s their problem, not mine). If the alternatives are withholding my displays of affection and the straightforward expression of my opinions to a wholly private sphere, then it seems to me that the cost of avoiding offense is too high. But I’m not sure I can say anything satisfying about how to assess those costs in a non-arbitrary way beyond appealing to my intuitive judgments.

On the one hand, I’ve sometimes wondered how far the difference between cases in which I have reason to avoid offense and those in which I don’t can be understood in terms of whether my action leaves the would-be offended people the opportunity to ignore me, so that I am not in effect forcing them to be faced with what they find offensive. To say “Islam is false” while walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant does not intrude on anyone; to run around town with a megaphone shouting “Islam is false!” intrudes upon people (again, I’m assuming that the people in question are themselves not intrusive or otherwise disrespectful or provocative). But the more I think about this sort of account, the more implausible it seems, and it seems implausible for just the same reason that certain sorts of libertarian appeals to the non-aggression principle seem implausible: it tries to bracket out the question of whether people have good reason to be offended by what I say or do, just as the simplest versions of the non-aggression principle try to bracket out questions about whether people’s consent or lack of consent is reasonable. This bracketing strategy leads to all manner of wildly counter-intuitive conclusions in both cases, and yet the principles seem to be defensible, if at all, only by their ability to explain a wide range of intuitively obvious judgments as well as to help settle more contentious cases (if there is some other, more foundationalist style argument for the non-aggression principle or its narrower, offense-centered version, I haven’t seen it; certainly the sort of thing that Rasmussen and Den Uyl offer, and that I think I have sometimes heard from Randians, comes nowhere close to justifying any principle nearly so strong as these) . So I’m led to wonder whether the better route would be to think simply in terms of whether people are reasonably offended or not, and whether my actions and words are actually disrespectful.

I don’t think it’s disrespectful to anybody to kiss my girlfriend in public, or to say that Islam is false. If someone is offended by those things, the real reason I don’t much care isn’t that I think I’m giving them the opportunity to ignore me, it’s that I don’t think they have any good reason to be offended. There is nothing offensive about me kissing my girlfriend (does this even require argument?), and even if Muslims shouldn’t be offended by my view because my view is right and theirs is wrong (after all, if Islam is false, nobody has good reason to be offended by someone saying so), they certainly shouldn’t be offended by my expression of my belief (I’m certainly not offended when Muslims say that Islam is true; though you wouldn’t know it from watching cable news, to disagree is not ipso facto to be offended!). But this puts me in a position uncomfortably like that of my obnoxious companion in Greece; there’s no good reason to be offended by people putting their feet up on chairs, so we should just put our feet up if we feel like it. And yet I still tend to think that there are cases where it isn’t reasonable for someone to be offended, and yet the fact that I will offend them gives me good reason to avoid acting in a way that I might otherwise prefer. I don’t think Muslims have any good reason to be offended by depictions of their prophet, and I don’t think that Greek hotel keepers have any good reason to be offended by somebody putting his feet up on a chair late at night when nobody is around. But while I might simply be indifferent to whether the history book depicts Muhammad, I would still tell that obnoxious kid to get his feet off that chair.

So am I just harboring incoherent beliefs and attitudes, or is there some way to maintain that what matters most in thinking about whether I should do something that others find offensive is whether those people have good reason to be offended, and yet also to allow that, even if they don’t, I might still have good reason to avoid giving offense?

18 thoughts on “On (Not) Avoiding Giving Offense

  1. That’s a great post, and a great way of framing the issue. I don’t think what you’re saying is incoherent, but I also don’t think that “Ceteris paribus, don’t offend” is the right principle to adopt. The tension implicit in the principle is also implicit in your post. I think “Ceteris paribus, don’t offend” makes a quasi-sociological or anthropological assumption: that most people are reasonable when it comes to offense. If we could know that, it would be a good principle. But suppose that most people are unreasonable when it comes to what offends them. In that case things will rarely be “equal” in the sense required by the principle, in which case the principle will be false.

    I think this is a general methodological problem with all principles prefaced by “Ceteris paribus.” They involve implicit empirical generalizations about the typicality of the cases in which “all things are equal.” If you have enough evidence to support such a generalization, there’s no problem. But if you don’t, ceteris paribus becomes misleading or uninformative. If most or even many people are easily offended about things that aren’t objectively offensive, “Ceteris paribus don’t offend” puts your candor or authenticity at the mercy of their unreasonableness–as you yourself suggest.

    Still, that particular principle aside, I don’t think your claims are incoherent. I basically agree with your first-order judgments. I would just put things differently than you do.

    First, I think we need to distinguish deliberate interactions from accidental interactions. A deliberate interaction is one that you deliberately engage in. An accidental interaction is one like your “feet up” example, where your action has the foreseeable consequence of having an effect on someone.

    In deliberate interactions, my view is that we’re trying to seek out the best people, and bring out the best in ourselves by interacting in the best way with the best in them. There are a lot of “bests” there, I realize, but I think each one is necessary. You seek the most virtuous people possible from the options; your seek the best parts of those most virtuous people, given the options; you find the best way of interacting with those elements of those people; and your ultimate aim is to bring out the best in yourself.

    Put in this way, it is obviously wrong to aim at offense for its own sake in a deliberate interaction. It is only right to foreseeably offend the other if candor or authenticity require it, and what you say is expressed with sensitivity to how to bring about the best in the other person. (Offense doesn’t bring out the best in others.) If you can’t balance all these things, you have to ask yourself what it is that you’re trying to accomplish in the interaction. Obviously, the account as a whole requires a worked out analysis of the concepts of “candor” and “authenticity.” That can’t be done in a combox, but at least we know what further work needs to be done. In general, though, in cases of conflict, I would err on the side of candor rather than avoiding offense.

    Now, granted: there are interactions in which we’re obliged to deal with people we can’t avoid dealing with, and who by their previous actions have forfeited a very strong claim to sensitivity on our part. I think such dealings should be minimized, but they can’t be entirely avoided. People like this need to be divided into those who deserve intentional offense, and those who merely deserve foreseeable but not intentional offense. You have to be a real asshole to go into the first category. You just need to have done some asshole things to fall into the second. (Aaron James’s work on assholes is quite useful and relevant here. I’m not trying to be offensive by using it; I really think it’s the optimal term for the phenomenon in question.)

    Accidental interactions are in my view much harder to think about. I think the fundamental issue is: who “owns” the space (in a broad sense of “owns”)? What norms prevail here? Divide these norms into the “patently irrational” and “the not-patently-irrational.”

    If a norm is patently irrational, it offends the dignity of any rational agent, and there can’t be a reason to respect it. Personally, I think the full-veil burqa falls into this category. Similarly, a norm that requires lying must be rejected: there are extreme conceptions of politeness in some cultures that require people to lie to one another. Arguably, the Pakistani norm of takallaf–or assiduous attention to formal etiquette–is one of them. (It’s not often remarked that both takallaf and ikhlas (sincerity) are supposed to be norms of Pakistani culture, but takallaf systematically violates iklhas.)

    If a norm is not-patently-irrational, and you are a guest in the culture that observes it, you should observe it on the grounds that it probably has (or might well have) a rationale that you know nothing about, and as a guest, you have an obligation to respect the prior ownership claims of hospitable guests. So there is one epistemic and one ethical consideration in favor of non-offense.

    If we’re talking about your home culture, however, I think those two bets are off. If there’s a norm in your home culture, and it’s neither patently irrational nor patently rational, but it has no known rationale, I am not sure you really have to observe it, merely to avoid offense to others. That is their problem.

    Let me send this and deal with your examples in a separate post.


    • OK, now let me discuss your examples.

      1. Putting your feet up in Greece. I think a non-Greek visitor to Greece should observe the Greek practice. For one thing, respect for it can be conceived as a return on otherwise uncompensated hospitality. (Of course, if you got treated like crap in Greece, you might flout their rule, but that isn’t what happened.) Also, there may be a reason for the custom. You’d need to hear the reason before you dismissed the norm as contrary to reason or nature. If the reason turns out to be patently irrational, then perhaps you should flout the norm and cause offense. But I suspect that not showing the soles of your feet is a conventionalized way of showing respect. Since all forms of respect have to be conventionalized, and respect ought to be shown, I think this practice ought itself to be respected. So I think you were right to chide your colleague. (“Excuse me, I’m sorry” can be handled in essentially the same fashion as this example.)

      2. Publishing a textbook with a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. I think the image should be published regardless of the offense it may cause. The ban on images of the Prophet is patently irrational. Implicitly, it involves an attack on the very idea of mimetic art, and it does so in a cultural context where mimetic art is perfectly acceptable. Arguably, it’s not even an authentically Islamic idea.

      Someone may argue that an image of the Prophet Muhammad has no educational value, but I think that’s too narrowly informational a conception of educational value. Granted, the image cannot literally tell us what the Prophet Muhammad looked like. Granted, it cannot impart specific information about his life. But that isn’t its point. Image-production is an act of the imagination. We put images in books because it’s pleasant to do so–for producer as well as consumer–and students should eventually come to see that and ideally participate in it. When Muslims attack non-derisive imagistic depictions of the Prophet, they are asking those of us at home in a mimetic culture to subordinate our justifiable desire for mimetic expression to their iconoclasm. We have no reason to accept that, and we should not do so. After all, if we took iconoclasm seriously–more seriously than its tribalist defenders tend to, who haven’t quite grasped its point–we would have to emulate the Taliban and regard all images as somehow suspect and offensive. In that case, if we followed the norm to its logical conclusion, we’d have to avoid reprinting images of any kind in any public setting. We’d then have to consider dismantling all public art of a mimetic nature, as is done in Afghanistan, and as is sometimes contemplated in Pakistan.

      3. Public displays of affection. If we’re talking about North America, where our norm legitimates PDAs, then I think PDAs are fine (within limits) even if some people are offended by them. I think the relevant distinction is that between affection and the expression of sexuality. A public display of affection is one thing. The public expression of sexuality is another. The first is not offensive; the second is. (There’s a judgment call there for the spoudaios.)

      Suppose, however, that you’re in East Jerusalem or Lahore, where PDAs are less acceptable and modest dress is obligatory. Here I’d plump for a compromise of some sort. One needn’t go as far as the locals, but I don’t see the point of offending them, either. You don’t really need to engage in PDA in sacred space, and modest dress is a reasonable request, even if you don’t quite emulate or imitate the locals. Modesty-in-dress is a highly debatable affair, more debatable than opposition to mimetic art as such. So deference to other cultures is less of a big deal. (Of course, I could be saying this because I don’t really care about fashion or sartorial expression in my own case but care deeply about the fine arts–a possible blind spot. This reminds me of a scene between Stravinsky and Coco Chanel in the movie “Igor Stravinsky and CoCo Chanel,” where he snubs her work as less elevated than his. It’s possible I’m doing something similar.)

      4. Saying that Islam is false. I think there are better and worse ways of asserting the falsity of other people’s beliefs, and right and wrong contexts for bringing it up. It can be offensive to force an issue with someone who doesn’t feel like discussing it, but if the conversation is mutual, and Islam is the topic, and one party to the conversation regards Islam as false, then it cannot be construed as offensive for that person to say that. Otherwise, the conversation would have no real point.

      Coming the other way around, however, foreigners sometimes get frustrated with the American practice of chit-chat at the dinner table. In American culture, one is supposed to discuss light topics, rather than politics, religion, money, or race. (Money is the biggest no-no, followed by race.) I have a lot of sympathy for people who offend against this presumption. Of course, there are better and worse ways of doing so.


  2. I can’t resist reproducing a passage from Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame, on the idea of takallaf, which I mentioned in my first comment (he spells it differently):

    Politeness can be a trap, and Bilquis was caught in the web of her husband’s courtesy. “As you wish,” she wrote back, and what made her write this was not entirely guilt, but also something untranslatable, a law which obliged her to pretend that Raza’s words meant not more than they did. This law is called takallouf. To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words. Takallouf is a member of the opaque, world-wide sect of concepts which refuse to travel across linguistic frontiers: it refers to a form of tongue-tying formality, a restraint so extreme as to make it impossible for the victim to express what he or she really means, a species of compulsory irony which insists, for the sake of good form, on being taken literally. When takallouf gets between a husband and a wife, look out. (p. 111 in the Aventura edition)


  3. I think your appeal to the general principle of trying to bring out the best in ourselves by bringing out the best in others is essential for answering my question. As a rational egoist style eudaimonist, I accept at least something like it. I’m not so sure, though, about your critique of ceteris paribus clauses, and for two reasons. First, I don’t think of my use of the ceteris paribus clause here as depending in any important way on empirical generalizations; it’s intended rather as a way of flagging the defeasibility of correct practical principles. I don’t think that makes the claim vacuous, since it continues to pick out something that I standardly have a defeasible reason to do; by contrast, for example, ‘eat human flesh’ is not a correct practical principle even though we might, in some possible circumstances, have ample reason to eat human flesh. I’d grant that empirical generalizations are relevant to assessing claims like ‘ceteris paribus, do not offend people.’ But I don’t think the assessment of that claim has to wait on any further empirical inquiry into how reasonable people tend to be in their offensiveness. Suppose most people are typically offended for abysmally bad reasons (I’m willing to entertain this thought largely because I frequently suspect that offense, as opposed to anger or contempt, is never an appropriate emotional response to anything). Nonetheless, provided that cetera are paria — i.e., that I can accomplish whatever I am setting out to do just as readily without causing offense — then I think I have a pretty decisive reason to avoid causing offense. As you say, offense doesn’t bring out the best in people, and in particular it doesn’t tend to generate an especially reason-receptive emotional state. So to the extent that I have some interest in people’s abandoning the mistaken reasons that lead them to be offended, offending them is not just unlikely to promote that interest, but it’s likely to be directly counter-productive.

    I’m with you on the context-sensitivity of public displays of affection and on the distinction between displays of affection and displays of sexuality. I generally do not think that it is particularly worthwhile for outsiders to mount direct challenges to conventions that do not cause severe harm, so I think the case for someone like me in East Jerusalem is pretty easy. But I’m not so sure that Israelis and Muslims in East Jerusalem might not have pretty good reasons to challenge the convention, given that (as I think) it is decidedly unreasonable though it doubtless has plenty of purported rationale. In any case, I think we see things the same way here not only in terms of the concrete judgments we’d make, but in terms of the accounts we’d give of why we should make those judgments.

    As for Muhammad in the textbooks, I guess I don’t know enough about how educational those images could be to have a very good idea of this. But I’m still not sure that, in a context in which some students are severely offended by the images, it isn’t best to avoid them. I agree wholeheartedly that there are no good reasons behind the prohibition, whether or not there is an intra-Islamic debate about it. But I worry that compelling students to look at them anyway seems contrary to treating them as independent rational agents. It is, in effect, to announce that their views are mistaken and that there is no reasonable discussion to be had about that. I think there are some views like that — Holocaust denial, for example, seems worth talking about only as an illustration of logical fallacy or psychologial pathology — but I’d be reluctant to treat this case as one of them. If I knew more about the issue, though, I might see things pretty differently (and, as I said, I’m pretty indifferent in the first place, in part because of ignorance but in part because the issue just doesn’t arise in my life except very, very indirectly).


    • Let me come back to the ceteris paribus issue after I’ve thought about it more.

      I’m inclined to agree with you about PDAs in East Jerusalem, but it’s actually a rather tricky issue that I thought about quite a bit when I was there two summers ago. On the one hand, I do think that anyone local, Israeli or Palestinian, has good reason to challenge the conventions on non-display of affection or the excesses of modesty imposed on women. But there is one significant mitigating factor that complicates things. Jerusalem is divided into East and West sectors, the East sector being Arab East Jerusalem, and the West sector being Jewish and “clearly” Israeli. De facto, both parts of the city are in the State of Israel, but the status of East Jerusalem is contested. Palestinians want it in Palestine, for the capital of that country-to-be. An unfortunate implication of this political situation is that Israeli Jews are regarded as de facto aliens in East Jerusalem, and vice versa. I don’t mean that no Israeli Jews pass through East Jerusalem, or vice versa. On the contrary, there’s plenty of traffic both ways. But there is tension in the air. It reminds me a bit of places like Newark or Crown Heights in the 1980s.

      The problem becomes that PDAs and relative “immodesty” of dress are construed by Palestinian East Jerusalemites as pro-Israeli political statements. And often they are intended that way. Israeli society is on the whole more liberal than Palestinian about sexual mores. Many Israelis resent the fact that you “cannot” wear or do on the streets of East Jerusalem what you can wear or do in the streets of West Jerusalem. And their response is, “Whose country is this, anyway? How dare anyone judge me or harass me for wearing a mini-skirt and heels anywhere in the State of Israel?” So it’s considered an act of defiance for Israelis to walk through East Jerusalem, en route to the Old City, dressed that way. I sat for hours in a cafe on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem, watching this spectacle (all in a purely detached and anthropological spirit, of course). The Palestinians regarded it as a provocation. And so, I think, did the Israelis, from the other direction. The same would be true, mutatis mutandis, of PDAs.

      So the problem here is that anyone who challenges the PDA/modesty convention is challenging more than that one convention itself. If the application of a convention depends on “who owns the space,” things will be hugely complicated in cases where it’s not clear who owns it. I find that sad and unfortunate, but there’s no way to ignore it. That’s why I’d plump for compromise in a place like East Jerusalem. Things are so fraught there that you wouldn’t want to start a riot over the length of someone’s skirt or the sensuality of their kiss.

      On Muhammad in textbooks, however, I’m less inclined to budge. For one thing, I think it matters that what we’re discussing is, say, textbooks and not billboards. A basic presupposition of the pedagogical context is that students have to be open to things that might offend them. It’s not legitimate to expect others to cover up an image that might offend you. It seems to me that the illicit expectation is the opposite of the one you suggest. It’s not that the illustrator or educator is disrespecting the agency of the Muslim student, but just the reverse. Imagine that we’re talking about a textbook that contains images of various historical figures–Moses, Aristotle, Alexander, Cicero, Julius Caesar, etc.–including Muhammad. Unless we’re being asked to gut the whole textbook of all images (which would be unacceptable for its own reasons), the objection to the image of Muhammad already represents a kind of special pleading. The publisher, illustrator, instructor, etc. is being asked to change what they do to accommodate an iconoclasm they don’t share. That seems to me the expression of disrespect for them, as though their attachment to images was a trivial matter that could be dropped at will simply by the announcement “This offends me.”

      There are two competing views here, iconoclasm and iconophilia. If someone wants accommodation in the name of iconoclasm, they have the burden of explaining why they want it. I doubt the reasons in favor of iconoclasm will be very good. But they cannot amount to non-reasons like “Well, this offends us, so take it out.” Why does it offend you? “Well, it just does.” And why is that? “Well, it’s our religion, and images of our prophet are proscribed, so it just does.” But it’s not quite accurate to say that that “Islam proscribes images,” is it? “Well, that doesn’t matter.” Here I’m inclined to retort: well if that doesn’t matter, why should it matter that some Muslims favor terrorism and some don’t? Shouldn’t we lump them all together and regard them as terrorists because the terrorists employ just the same “reasoning” as you just have? “Islam tells us that we have to kill people, so we just have to, and that’s it.” [Added later: There are plenty of Islamophobes who are “offended” at the fact that textbooks don’t represent “Islam” as monolithically advocating aggressive jihad and terrorism. Applying the Islamic iconoclast’s reasoning to the offended feelings of Islamophobes, we get the paradoxical consequence that we should re-write the textbooks to make Islam look worse.]

      At this point, we’re being asked to accommodate both iconoclasm and fideism. But to accept reasoning like this in the pedagogical context is to gut the pedagogical enterprise, even if the particular image in question has no great educational significance. Maybe the standards of offense are lower for a demagogic billboard on the side of a bus. But I don’t think we’re announcing that there’s no reasonable discussion to be had about images by leaving it in until we hear a good reason why it should be taken out. We’re inviting a reason: “So here is the image; what’s so offensive about it?” It surely is not an appeal to reason for them to say, “First get rid of the image; then we’ll talk about it.” The burden of proof goes the other way around. In the most extreme case, a given student can simply avert his eye from the image, e.g., put his hand over it while reading the text. But I think we have to insist that to make a case for accommodation, they have to look at the image and explain what is objectionable about it. They cannot refuse to look at it and tell us that it’s so objectionable they won’t look.

      The insidious “I’m offended” card goes way beyond Muslims, by the way. It was perfected by non-Muslims. I used to work for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and NAEP actually had a team that fielded “offense” complaints–complaints about test questions that were somehow offensive. I don’t think you can imagine the sorts of complaints that came in. Certain topics simply became no-go zones for future test questions: religion, politics, climate, marriage, romance, evolutionary theory, astronomy, race, etc. Eventually, one ends up here. Here’s an informative article about NAEP itself. I can’t help mentioning that when I worked at NAEP, my supervisor got a totally spurious offense query from none other than Diane Ravitch. I spent the better part of the day in the Firestone Library collecting the materials to put it to rest.


  4. This has been a very enlivening discussion, and I largely agree with what you both are saying. Before I venture further though, I’d like to briefly outline the sort of “ethic of offense” that has been posited here in the comments.

    1. As a general principle, it is better to not offend than to offend. This is dependent on the nature of the offense, of the offender, of the offendee, and of the status of the place in which the offense occurs. Simply stating “don’t offend” like it is a categorical imperative ignores the nuance, the uses and abuses inherent to offensive sayings and actions.
    -The nature of the offense is whether it was deliberate (I go up to a devout Muslim in the street and whisper discretely “Islam is false”) or accidental (I put up my feet in a Greek restaurant).
    -The nature of the offender is a question of whether he is a deliberate or an accidental offender, which is often epistemically impossible to determine (such as in the case where the friend put up his feet in the Greek restaurant – could the Greeks determine whether his offense was from ignorance, or deliberate intention? Unlikely, though you would know).
    -The nature of the offendee is a question of how the offense will be borne, and whether it is profitable in some way to offend (see principles 2 and 3 below). If I am speaking with my friend, who is Muslim, and who I know is a relatively open-minded person, I can say to him “Islam is false” in the course of a conversation on religion, because we are both assumed to possess a nature of open enquiry, and the nature of the place in which we are speaking is considered to be open (more on this in the next point). If I am at a protest against America, where effigies of the president and the flag are being burned, and angry Muslims with Kalashnikovs are shooting into the air, prudence alone dictates that I keep my opinions to myself.
    -Finally, the status of the place where the offense takes place is important. If I want to walk around naked at the Folsom Street Fair, a place specifically designated for the expression of non-mainstream sexuality, then that is okay, because it is a space for such people. If I want to do the same thing in Notre Dame cathedral, then I am infringing on the space of others, who do not want to see my nakedness, and have a stronger claim to that space. However, in neutral, public space such as a city park, it is a little bit trickier. Who really “owns” that space, especially when there are groups within the same society and culture that have different ideas for the park? I would imagine at this point
    2. Sometimes not giving offense, and maintaining candor, authenticity, or rationality, are opposed goals.
    3. At this point, it must be asked whether giving offense offers a greater benefit to the offender, which outweighs the harm to the offender by not giving offense, and the harm to the offendee given by the offense.
    -To quote Irfan: “It is only right to foreseeably offend the other if candor or authenticity require it, and what you say is expressed with sensitivity to how to bring about the best in the other person. (Offense doesn’t bring out the best in others.)”

    These ideas are based on these principles:
    1. In social intercourse, we ought to act so as to bring out the best in the people with whom we interact, and not the worst.
    2. And, we must do this at a minimum cost to our own best principles

    Do tell me if I have misconstrued anything said herein. Now I will also analyze some of the examples:

    1a. Putting your feet up in Greece. The nature of the offense is that social etiquette has been violated, and thus this is similar on principle as putting one’s elbows on the table whilst eating, or picking one’s nose in public: unpleasant, but a venal rather than a mortal sin. The nature of the offender could be deliberate, or accidental, but it is likely that this is impossible to know unless the offender and offendee are on more intimate terms than acquaintances, or if some other attribute is known about the person. If the person is Greek, it can be assumed that he would know the custom, and thus that he flouts it deliberately. If the person is a xenos, then it can be assumed that he would not know the custom, and thus that he ignores it because he is ignorant of it.

    Not offending does not infringe on the rights or principles of the offender, unless he considers putting his feet up on a table to be an integral part of his character – at which point he is just an asshole, and should be treated like one. It may be an irrational thing to do, but it may also be rational, as feet shod or unshod are dirty and no one likes a dirty table. Finally, because this is a Greek space, the offense infringes on the owners of it. Because there is miniscule gain for the offender, not offending does not violate any principles, there is a palpable offense for the offendee, and the space belongs to that offendee, one should not put up one’s feet in Greece.

    1b. Eating with the left hand in Nepal. This is my own example, and one I think useful to illustrate when breaching etiquette is acceptable. The left hand is used for cleaning oneself after defecation, and so is considered unclean and is not to be used for waving, or eating, or shaking hands, and so forth. All the same factors apply to this case as in the Greek foot case, save one: the offender may be left-handed, and so the cost of obeying etiquette becomes prohibitively high. My travel buddy on my recent trip to Nepal had this dilemma, as it was on the one hand (no pun intended) highly offensive to use the left hand for eating, but on the other, it was very difficult for him to use his right hand for the task. Because the cost of using the right hand is high, and the breach in social etiquette not as high (assuming my idea that breaches of etiquette are looked down on, but not severely so), I would think it right to use one’s left hand.

    2. Publishing a textbook with a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The nature of the offense is more fraught than above, for to print the depiction is to offend Muslims, but to not print the cartoon is to offend the rationality of the printer (who thinks the ban on depictions is idiotic) and his authenticity (assuming he wants to print the cartoon to educate his readers, though maybe also if he is merely intending to offend). The offender, is he wants to serve an educational purpose, is not deliberately causing offense, but he is doing something he knows will have the foreseeable consequence of causing offense, without the corresponding intention. If he merely wants to offend, he has the intention and the consequence together, i.e. he is just an asshole. The offendee has a potentially rational or irrational reason for taking offense. If he takes offense because “my religion says it is offensive,” it becomes circular, and thus irrational: depictions of Muhammad are offensive because I say they are offensive, and I say they are offensive because they are offensive. If he takes offense and offers a defensible argument, such as he takes offense because of the religious principle, and the religious principle is defensible on some ground, we now have a dilemma: the competing rational claims of the printer, and of the devout Muslim.

    Whom to follow? The two motivations must be weighed in opposition to each other. The printer has the concerns of authenticity in his text and to his principles, his rational claims, and whatever economic benefits might accrue from printing a depiction rather than not. The Muslim does not have an assault on his principles, because what another does will not affect whether he is able to follow his creed; and he presumably has a rational argument for why his religious qualms are defensible. At this point, we must ask, is there a benefit to the offense, and is the offense avoidable? There is a benefit, and it is avoidable, because one can simply not buy the book. I would be inclined to say: print the depiction.

    However, this assumes that there are not other costs to the printing. If the printer wants to sell his book in New York, that will not cause much of a fuss. If he wants to sell it in Karachi, the business might be torched and people might die. That suggests that it is fine to me to print it in America and sell it there, but not to print it in certain inflammatory regions of the world. To defend his principles, and not infringe on the lives and safety of others, he would have to refrain printing it entirely in places where it would cause such violent offense.

    I think that is enough for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matt,

      That summary is very useful, thanks. I liked example (1b)–eating with your left hand in Nepal–and I agree with your analysis of it. I’ve encountered a version of the same taboo in Pakistani contexts, but since I’m right-handed, I’ve never had to deal with the taboo in any overt way. What I don’t understand is how left-handed Nepalis cope, or what expectations are made of them. Are they expected to function as though they were right-handed? If so, discrimination against the left-handed really seems indistinguishable to me from a form of outright racism. In both cases, one set of heritable (or supposedly heritable) traits is used as the basis of systematic discrimination. But just as you wouldn’t have to share in the racism of another society (unless you were legally required to comply with a racist practice on pain of, say, imprisonment), so you shouldn’t have to share in discrimination against the left-handed, whether in Nepal or Pakistan.


      • So many foreigners have come to Nepal in the last 100 years that, in the most heavily traveled areas, they don’t really react to breaches of etiquette. When my friend ate using his left hand, there were some raised eyebrows, but little more than that. When he and I objected to the common practice of shuffling people around on a bus like chess pieces, however, they “fought back”: we were soon surrounded by other Nepalis attempting to convince us to switch buses, because “no possible ride, no room, no possible.” “But we have purchased tickets for those seats.” “No possible, seats taken.” The crowd swelled, they appealed to our vanity, to the other passengers, but no: they had wronged us, and we would not budge. Eventually we got what we wanted, and an insight into how Nepalis deal with conflict: with public shaming. Since we were shameless, it had no effect, but the Nepalis on the bus looked appalled when we finally got on, aboard the engine seat (just the cover for the diesel engine in the driver’s cabin, which may or may not be padded).

        I am not sure how pervasive discrimination is against the left-handed in Nepal, though, so I don’t know if this can be equated with outright racism. Racism against low-caste Nepalis, like in India, is against them as people: they are dirty because they were born dirty. No matter their actions, they will always be looked down on. Discrimination against the left-handed is because of a practice associated with the left hand: it is not to be used for food, because it is also used for washing oneself. However, this distinction goes into a bunch of other social practices. A person only gives and receives money with the right hand, he does not wave to others but with his right hand, he does not touch a priest or a lama but with the right hand, and I am sure many other actions. In a small place like a village, it might be possible to reverse hands if one is left-handed without causing offense, as everyone knows the reason for it, but it would not be possible somewhere like Kathmandu, where the millions of people will neither know nor care to know why this strange country bumpkin is using the wrong hand for washing and eating. There really isn’t a good solution here, because until Nepalis stop assigning one hand for washing and one for eating, most of them will consider the left hand unclean and those that use it uncouth, and those born left-handed are never going to comfortably switch to the right hand. Though the discrimination is against a practice and not against the person himself, but it seems the practice cannot be distinguished from the person as it is integral to his functioning in society, it should be equated with racism.


        • Plenty to think about there. I’ve found this whole discussion incredibly enlightening and stimulating, so I can’t resist the urge to offer one last Jerry Springer-like comment before I let it go.

          The one thing is that the whole left-hand taboo strikes me as a classic case of what epistemologists are now calling aliefs. I don’t know whether anyone has discussed aliefs in this particular context–diversity of cultural practices and offense–but it seems a promising topic. (My quick impression is that the alief literature focuses elsewhere.)

          The second point is that this discussion just underscores what’s always struck me as the poverty of philosophical discussions of cultural relativism, especially in pedagogical contexts, but elsewhere as well. Open almost any textbook of moral philosophy, and you’ll encounter the standard-issue refutation of cultural relativism, or else you’ll encounter a defense of some version of Mackie’s “argument from disagreement.” I’m not a cultural relativist about fundamental moral principles, so at a certain level, I sympathize with the refutations of very facile, extreme forms of cultural relativism. But I wonder whether the authors of these textbooks really get out very much. You can reject cultural relativism about female genital mutilation (the favorite example) and still be left with huge, pressing, unanswered questions of the sort David poses in the original post. I don’t get the sense that standard “mainstream” approaches to ethics pedagogy really address them in any serious way. I’m sure there’s more to it than this, but I often find a schizophrenic oscillation between two simplistic points of view: “Any culture that practices FGM is really, really, really bad!” versus “Judging members of other cultures is a racist expression of white Western privilege!”

          Some day I’d like to open a textbook and have the author pose questions about what to do when you’re on a bus in Nepal, you have a ticket, but you’re told that the seats are taken. Not that FGM is a morally insignificant issue, but the average reader of one of these textbooks is more likely to be wondering what to do about some equivalent of the Nepalese bus scenario than wondering what to do about some genital cutting scenario.


  5. I don’t have much to add to either of these responses, but I should clarify that when thinking about the textbook example I was assuming that the question was whether to use a textbook in a class, not whether to print it. These are different questions, and the first would, I think, be more context-sensitive than another. I don’t think there’s any reason not to print a textbook that includes depictions of Muhammad. Whether or not we should use it in our class, though, would seem to depend on just how the offended parties regard it. Clearly if all they want to say is “I’m offended, and we will not discuss this issue until you stop using this textbook,” then I don’t think anybody is best served by our caving in to that kind of pressure. If there are strong but more reasoned objections, though, it isn’t clear to me whether the better thing to do would be to use the textbook and discuss the issue or to use a textbook that omits the images and discuss the issue. We could, of course, also just go the typical American route: let’s just pretend this issue doesn’t exist. That’s typically how objections to evolutionary theory are treated, for example; we certainly aren’t going to cave in to creationist demands to stop teaching evolution or to teach ‘intelligent design theory’ alongside it in science classrooms, but we also don’t want to have an open philosophical discussion about the philosophical and scientific merits of intelligent design theory and alternative explanatory models in evolutionary theory. That may be for the best, given the likelihood that many teachers not trained in philosophy will be able to lead that sort of discussion well. But it isn’t ideal. Neither, I think, is just avoiding the issue of iconoclasm. But it may be the option most likely to avoid creating more conflict and division.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a good example that has come up in the last few years is the editing of works by Mark Twain to remove instances of the word “nigger.” I think there are compelling reasons to believe both opponents and proponents of keeping the word in classics like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The word itself, in some ways, calls up the whole history of racial animus against black Americans, and if one were to walk up to a black American in the street and scream the word in his face, he would probably be justified under the fighting words doctrine to beat one senseless. That would fit the pattern of deliberate offender qua asshole that Irfan stated earlier. However, the book and its author did not use the word with the intent to offend, but to use the authentic language of Southern people of the time. To edit out usages of the word would be to pervert that record, to portray the time as other than it was, and so it does a disservice both to history, and to perception of that history. In the present, students may be offended by the word, but the intent of the author and its use in his work is not calculated to offend, omitting it would distort their view of history and harm them more (in my estimation, at least) than would not protecting their sensibilities, and so to censor Twain’s work in favor of a sanitized edition is wrong.

      I think black Americans have a much stronger claim to offense, one that is at the very least rational, as compared to Muslims objecting to a depiction of Muhammad in a book. If the sort of eudaimonistic ethic is one we ought to hold to, we really need to first determine what brings out the best in others, the offended party or in this case the students. Is protecting their feelings important? Undoubtedly, but to what degree? When protecting feelings conflicts with the educational goals of a certain unit, what becomes more important, the goals of pedogogy, or the protection of feelings? Undoubtedly the goals of pedagogy, but we run into other issues as you suggested, when we know that a certain text will offend. I think instead of one or the other option, perhaps both texts should be used. By using the censored and uncensored texts simultaneously, one can kill two birds with one stone: compare the offensive text with the sanitized one and the difference this makes to the learning experience, and discuss issues surrounding censorship, appropriate offense and deference to the sensibilities of others, and so forth.


      • I certainly agree with that. I actually confronted a version of this very issue recently while designing an ethics class. I assigned one reading from the book The Ethical Slut, one blog post from the Volokh Conspiracy blog with the word “nigger” in it, and ended with Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit.” Something to offend everyone! Here’s the list of readings. I didn’t devise the reading list intentionally to offend anyone, but it’s an easily foreseeable possibility, and I’d be amazed if I didn’t end up getting a complaint from someone (students, faculty, admin, outsiders). But one of the reasons why I think protection-against-offense is not that important in the pedagogical context is that I think students need to learn how to deal with things that offend them.

        The climate of opinion on these issues has become pretty ridiculous–offensive, in fact. Last year, faculty at Felician were required to go through “sensitivity training” (effectively mandated by law) which outlined all of the forms of verbal or non-verbal expression that make for a “hostile work environment.” One of the examples given in the presentation: does it create a hostile work environment to have an anti-war poster on the wall of one’s office? Answer: yes, it discriminates against veterans, which contradicts the aims of a “veteran-friendly school.” The forbidden poster consisted of the word “war” with a slash through it. That was “hostile.” Apparently, people who have braved enemy fire in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot handle the sight of a poster which more or less says, “Ceteris paribus, war is a bad thing.” (David will like that.) The poster doesn’t criticize veterans, doesn’t mention any particular branch of service, and doesn’t even mention any particular war or policy. To be against war in a general way (or to be a pacifist), and to express it, is legally forbidden hostility.

        When a society reaches this level of irrationality, it doesn’t much matter that its Constitution enshrines free speech. People no longer have the habit of free speech, and are coerced not by government dictat but by the fear (whether exaggerated or not) of litigation. Of course, given the nature of litigation, there’s no way to know when the fear of it is exaggerated or not. You can ask a lawyer and still be in the dark. Every one of us was required to go through sensitivity training, to take a test on it, and to sign our “consent” to the non-hostile workplace policy. It didn’t occur to anyone that there was something hostile or offensive about any of that. Of course, unless one exercises one’s free speech and expresses the thought out loud, it never will.


  6. I think I’d go stronger: war is always a bad thing, it’s just sometimes the only or best course of action. It’s despicable (I don’t say offensive, because frankly offense strikes me as an anti-intellectual emotion that functions primarily to shield oneself from the possibility that one’s beliefs or preferences are not the only rational ones) that people at an institution of higher learning would fail to see that opposition to war does not entail hostility to veterans or that a college is precisely the sort of community that should encourage expressions of opposing beliefs in the interest of cultivating rational discussion and debate. I don’t think colleges need to or even should permit faculty to put just anything that they please on their doors. But the mere fact that something might upset someone is no reason to prohibit it.

    I wonder: to what extent are policies like these, and the kind of thinking that generates them, a product of the idea that the standards that govern our collective enterprises must be neutral? If we aren’t going to allow people to do just anything, we have to appeal to some standards, and if we want to be fair those standards have to be ones that everybody can accept despite their varied disagreements, so we can’t appeal to substantive judgments that people might disagree about, and so we’re left with no criteria to distinguish cases in which people are unreasonably offended and those in which they aren’t. I don’t think that way of thinking has anything going for it, but it certainly does seem to be widespread, in both more and less sophisticated forms.


    • I agree: war is always a bad thing, but sometimes the best course of action.

      To be fair to Felician, I should clarify that its offering “harassment training” is a legal requirement, and the most cost-effective way of satisfying it is to do so via a canned harassment training module of the sort available at companies like this one (which is the one we used). Such companies specialize in training everyone in hyper-cautious fashion so as to minimize legal liability for any discrimination issues that ever come up. (I can easily imagine a lawyer pooh-poohing their training module on the grounds that it “goes too far.” But of course, the problem is: no one knows what “too far” means until the litigation arrives on one’s doorstep in the form a subpoena.) The existence and viability of companies like Workplace Answers is a direct function of our contemporary legal environment, specifically of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment law. It sounds innocuous, but it isn’t. So everyone at the College–or almost everyone–might recognize that opposition to war doesn’t entail hostility to veterans, but what we recognize or not doesn’t seem to matter.

      I think policies like this are in part a product of a commitment to neutrality in public affairs. Part of it is that once a bad idea finds expression in the law, it picks up a momentum of its own, and there are always opportunists out there willing to ride the gravy train for all it’s worth. But maybe the fundamental idea is that we have a right “not to be discriminated against,” where “discriminated against” is a very coarse-grained concept, liable to all sorts of exploitation, confusion, and misuse.


  7. Pingback: From (Another Blog’s) Comments: An Ethic of Offense | Notes On Liberty

  8. Pingback: Guest post: A Passage to Bangladesh, Dhaka Day 1 (by Matt Faherty) | Policy of Truth

  9. Pingback: Thinking about BDS (1): Infantilization, ‘Safe Spaces’, and Threats to Discourse | Policy of Truth

  10. Pingback: Norman Finkelstein on Naz Shah’s “Anti-Semitism” | Policy of Truth

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s