In my comments about the Jordan Peterson – Cathy Newman interview I picked up on the issue offense and whether or not it is subjective or objective. I want to argue that offense is objective and all the discussion about the right either to give offence or to be protected against being offended is to miss the point.
Let me explain with an example. Suppose a teacher has 2 pupils in their class. Boy A is lazy, rude and actually not that gifted at English. They could with a bit of hard work get a grade 4 or 5 (around the old C-D borderline) but are risking of getting a 2 or a 3 (old E-F). Girl A is working hard for various reasons still seems to be struggling. In-fact the whole class seem to be struggling.
Now the teacher could meet with Boy A and his parents and tell them that he is a lazy, waste of space, he won’t amount to anything. Suppose he is from a travelling community or a particular ethnic group and the teacher also finds a few choice names and adjectives to describe them. The child and the parents are offended. Are they right to be offended? Well I think most of us would consider that reasonable offence had been taken even if there were truths they needed to hear, the teacher had expressed them in an offensive manner.
Supposing the teacher met with the parents and explained calmly and reasonably the challenge. The boy’s attitude and behaviour were letting him down. He had a target grade, English wasn’t his strongest subject, they weren’t at this stage expecting 8s and 9s (the old top-grade A*) but he could still achieve his target grade. The parents and boy are deeply offended? They can’t believe the teacher would be so negative about their child. Are they right to be offended?
Supposing Girl A hears the teacher talking about her and the class. He is saying that the whole class is a waste of space. That they are all drop outs, that he can’t be bothered helping girl A because she is stupid. She interrupts the conversation and challenges him. He tells her that she is just a girl and shouldn’t be bothering her little head with academic subjects anyway. She is offended. Is she entitled to be?
Here’s another example. The other day, we were in Wolverhampton just before a football game started. A local pub had a sign saying “Home fans only.” If I were a visiting supporter would I be entitled to be offended? Would the issue be whether or not the pub has the right to cause offence? Supposing that the pub is acting on the advice of the police, for safety reasons, different pubs are designated for different supporters on match days. Now what if the pub had a sign up saying “No blacks allowed”?
The point I’m coming to is this.
1. There are times when I say something that may have true content in it but I may say it in an offensive way. This, I would suggest is different from a right to ridicule.
2. There are times when I say something that is just offensive. My intent is to offend not to help and the offence is in both the untruthfulness of what I am saying and the spiteful way I say it.
3. There are times when I say things that are not intended to cause offence and aren’t said in an offensive way but the other person chooses to take offence. The sad thing is that this often happens and as Peterson points out in the interview, when we seek the truth we take a risk that others will take offence.
If I believe that offence is subjective then with point 3 I will focus on how the person feels. If I believe that it is objective then I should be saying “No, your response is wrong, you shouldn’t be getting offended even if this is difficult to hear. You need to hear it.” There are correct and incorrect emotional responses to things. If I laugh at the news of suffering and death treating it as a joke, my emotional response is incorrect. If I respond with anger or disappointment to your good news, then again, my emotional response is wrong. If I respond by taking offence at truth told for my benefit, then my response is wrong.
Now, this does not mean that we should legislate to stop people from saying things. Remember what we have talked about before in terms of the difference between sin and crime. However, this does not mean that I have a right to offend and be offensive. The question is not about my right to offend. I’m not sure I particularly have that as a moral right. The issue is about our responsibility to tell the truth in love.