In the corners of the blogosphere where I hang out, offense and the giving and taking thereof have been the topic du jour for quite a few jours now. There’s Crackergate, the “sheet head” letter, the question of what words may be used to point out that someone else is calling names and, as I start writing this, questions being raised about protecting students from being offended by class material. A lot of people are being offended these days.
But what does it mean to be offended? What does it mean to be an offender? Who gets to be either and why? Is offense ever a good thing? What follows here is my attempt to synthesize my observations and conversations on the topic over the last couple of weeks.
Offense is, obviously, a social transaction. A person in social isolation can neither offend nor be offended (without resorting to anthropomorphism). One person can intend to offend or not. Another can accept offense, reject offense or claim offense.
More than that, offense is a power transaction. Historically in Western civilization, offense has been the purview first of gods, then of kings as the representatives of gods, then of kings in their own right, then of those elites who were recognized to have honor that could be offended. Beyond that, the “right” to be offended is still in flux. Being offended is a privilege. Offense is made against and measured by the (local) status quo, and those outside the status quo are not permitted to take or claim offense. Instead, they are perceived to be merely angry.
Limiting the right to take offense is important and contentious because the difference between anger and offense is obligation. Offense implies an obligation of the offender to the offended to “fix” the offense. Again historically, this obligation is paid in blood–on the altar, battlefield, chopping block or dueling ground. These days, when blood is a less acceptable form of payment, fixing the offense is frequently impossible, leaving the offender permanently in a position of obligation.
So being offended confers a certain benefit, if the offended can have their claim recognized. Why would one offend? The obvious reason is that the offense is unintentional. The offender may not know their audience well enough to gauge their expectations. The offended may not know the offender well enough to interpret their behavior. Or either may enter a social space with a different status quo than they are used to.
Offending deliberately can, counter-intuitively, have advantages. It can declare one to be outside the status quo or declare affiliation with a group with a differing status quo. It can provide an opportunity to declare that the offended does not have the status required to claim offense. It can easily provoke an opponent to anger, since the status quo is rarely observed or dissected objectively. And it can, in the right hands, provide a “teachable moment” about the nature of the status quo.
So those are the wherefores of offense as I’ve been pondering them lately. This is a bit more dense than what I usually post here, so it won’t surprise me if no one feels up to commenting after reading it. But if you do have a comment or question, please share. The issue is hardly likely to go away, and now that I’ve noticed it properly, I’ll keep thinking about it. I’d love the opportunity to refine my thinking some more.