‘Offence’

Is it ever appropriate to be ‘offended’ on behalf of someone else who isn’t?

Offence is the most bandied about word in the modern political debate. It can bring down promising careers in public service, it can tarnish mass social movements. It is as destructive as it is powerful in our modern lexicon. So my question is a simple one, is it ever permissible to be offended on behalf of someone else who isn’t?

The context to this question comes from Devon, where a farmer said something he definitely should not have. 

Devon farmer Richard Haddock presumably does not think before he speaks. Otherwise he would not have used the word ‘lynched’ in relation to the chief of Ofcom if she ever visited the area he lived; due to poor broadband speeds.

The problem with using the word lynched? Well the chief of Ofcom is born of Jamaican parents. Ms Sharon White is black.

Obviously Mr Haddock lacks either decorum or commonsense, the historical connotations where ‘lynching’ has been used in relation to black people is not pretty. And normally I would be supporting the actions of Federation of Small Businesses with their suspension of Mr Haddocks membership. But things are much more complicated when Ms White explains she is not offended. Not in the least. She understands it was more faux pas than racism and she has a thick skin for insults anyway.

If she is not offended, and the offender was motivated by ignorance rather than intentional racism is it appropriate for the FSB to be offended on Ms White’s behalf? This is the nub of the problem in modern society visa-a-vis the politics of political correctness and ‘offence’.

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Taking a dictionary standpoint it’s manifestly obvious from the stories of all involved in the incident that no crime was involved. Mr Haddock did not cause that kind of offence. But it is not entirely clear if he was guilty of the former definition of offence either. Ms White was not upset, she accepted his later apology for using the wrong word in the wrong setting. If Ms White is not ‘hurt’, ‘upset’ and does not feel Haddock was trying to be deliberately rude – then why are other people getting offended?

This for me is the nub of the issue of the politics around offence. All too many times people are either intellectually lazy, and resort to being ‘offended’ to avoid political discourse. Or, well meaning crusaders get professionally ‘offended’ on the behalves of minorities who – occasionally – would rather they just did not.

As a young gay man this whole discussion is very real to me. The politics of ‘offence’, political correctness, and social solidarity is a very real issue for me. And I love and appreciate it when a majority stands up for a minority. When heterosexual people make a stand against the religious homophobe who’d seek to deny me access, due to my sexuality, I love the social solidarity to opposing him.  But I do not appreciate it when that heterosexual majority gets offended on my behalf; indicating that I am too weak or stupid to realize I ought to be offended myself. I am gay, I know when someone is being deliberately homophobic, bigoted or when they are just naive and slightly uneducated about modern sexuality. There is always a difference between a faux pas and intentional prejudice. We need to be smart enough to realise this.

Likewise with racism. If Ms White is telling the FSB that she is not offended, that Haddock was not being racist, but just an ass needing to think before engaging mouth, then others should take her at her word. Believe me, Ms White knows real, deliberate, injustice-filling racism when she comes across it. For me, I’ll get ‘offended’ when there is a reason to be. But at all times, I’m aware that crying ‘offence’ is neither an argument nor an effective discourse to rebut discriminatory attitudes or actions.

5 comments

  1. It’s certainly all got a bit complicated.

    Political correctness? My granny would actually call it just being polite.

    I’m not sure that anyone should be lynched, black, white or green because broadband speeds in the UK, outside of London, are abysmal. And they are! (I have a friend who lives in London and who was moving house recently. His new house wasn’t quite ready, but he had to vacate his old house, so he went to stay with his parents in Bath. He makes his living online so staying out of town for a few weeks wasn’t disastrous. But he was utterly disgusted with the broadband speeds in Bath compared with what he was used to. And Bath isn’t THAT far from London. Heaven knows what he’d think if he lived in Stornaway!)

    But for all that the person in charge doesn’t need lynching, or indeed any other form of capital or even corporal punishment.

    He or she probably some more funding to make roll out of high speed a real priority.

    More broadly (see what I did there) I understand your point about people getting upset on other people’s behalf. That said the lady concerned is probably highly intelligent, educated and capable otherwise she wouldn’t have that job. In your case, you can deal, I’m sure, with homophobia, cleverly and hopefully with wit.

    Not everyone is quite as good at batting these things off. Some people would be offended and some people might be very hurt. Some people might end up seriously depressed, and some even taking their own lives.

    I think it’s as well to be aware of that.

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  2. Perhaps the whole ‘offence’ debate, is actually a precursor to stifling debate?
    Are we seeing the ground being prepared for censorship online by the state?

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    • Now that is a very interesting thought.

      But is internet censorship even possible? With my adblocker I block out all online advertising. With my VPN I render IP-address based internet censorship useless.

      That speculation all said, you are onto a winner with the ‘stifling debate’ concept. Was it Stephen Fry who said ‘you are offended? so fucking what? It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase’

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  3. The word ‘offence’ is useful as a shorthand way of pointing towards possible real underlying harm done to others. Unfortunately the term is now overloaded. It would appear that the experience of ‘being offended’ by comments about race, sexuality etc. is for a number of people starting to be equated with actual suffering (of the type, say, experienced by victims of racism). This is not helpful.

    But the main problem is the subjective nature of what causes us to be offended. The feelings of annoyance, resentment etc. may be genuine, but are they justifiable at the bar of human reason or a shared humanity? The feeling of ‘being offended’ – because of the word’s use in a legal context – carries with it with the idea that it is right or ‘legitimate’ to feel this way. It’s not. Or at least not without recourse to further justification in terms of actual (or potential) harm. The problem is compounded when people start to believe they are justified in attempting to silence those who cause offence.

    We probably need to avoid using the word ‘offence’ or at least be considerably more careful in how we use it. Otherwise the response “I don’t give a f*** about you being offended.” is likely to be justifiably heard more often.

    From what you have written you are obviously aware of issues to do with the concept of offence. So in answer to your simple question ‘Is it ever permissible to be offended on behalf of someone else who isn’t?’ my answer is almost invariably going to be ‘no’.

    In answer to the question ‘Is it permissible (morally justifiable) to be concerned about what is said or done to someone even if s/he claims no harm has been done to her/him?’, then my answer is going to be ‘Yes’. But how to view what has been done and what action to be taken – if any – will depend on a multitude of factors, not least the predictable bad consequences of the action on those not directly involved. And that’s an issue for another day, when I don’t have a rally to attend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reply.

      From what you write, I think we’re on the same page more or less. It all does raise the issue of ‘hate speech’ as a legal definition. When governments attempt to codify ‘offence’ and intent to incite harm through language it all becomes hideously complicated.

      So when it boils down to it, yes you are right. Understanding the meanings behind the words we use would help defuse much of the problems we’re facing.

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