Causing and taking offence – more on the subjective or objective question

In part 1 of this discussion, I argued that offence is first and foremost an objective matter. This does not mean that there isn’t a subjective response (See previous articles on guilt and shame that also touch on the objective and the subjective). It is however about whether we can make an objective judgement about whether a statement or behaviour is objective.

In future articles I want to pick up on this by looking at how it relates to preaching, pastoral issues and our attitude to affections more widely.  This will include thinking about how we preach to the affections and our responsibility. It will also include some thinking about whether we are rightly identifying and defining emotional responses. However, first of all, I want to pick up on some questions or challenges that have come back.

The argument made by Stephen Kneale on his blog is that I have got this wrong and that my examples undermine rather than support my case. So, I want to give a little space to respond to that. His argument is that because the examples I give reflect context based value judgements (e.g on racism and sexism) that this proves offence is subjective and not objective.  After all, in the 1950s I would not have seen  a “no blacks allowed sign” as offensive and if I lived in a different social context, I would not see the comments about a girl not being up to academic education as derogatory.

However, far from refuting my point, I would suggest that Stephen has ended up strengthening it here. You see, he has to argue far too much here. He has not simply argued that being offended at as gender  or race issue but that the values we hold to have changed. Yet, I assume that he would not want to conclude that racism and genderism are really subjective issues. Our values may have changed but that means that in some cases we have moved closer to objective truth. We may also think of issues where we have moved in the opposite direction as a society where attitudes to the terminally ill and the unborn child that would have offended a previous generation to not offend us.

My point is this. When that Jamaican man was turned away from a room in 1950, the issue was not whether or not he felt offended, he may have been quite laid back, his upbringing may have meant he accepted a second class status as the norm, he may have felt deeply offended whilst I as a passing white guy might not. It does not change the fact that the sign was offensive.  If Malala is offended at the attempt in some countries to stop girls going to school, the issue is not just that she feels offended but that the attitude shown is morally repugnant and offensive.

Now, working out objectively what is morally correct may be difficult

1. because people have had different opinions at different times and those opinions are shaped by their context.

2. Multifaceted because they are situational based

However, that does not mean they are not objective and yes we as believers in Jesus Christ can talk objectively about these things because we have God’s objective revelation on them.

Whether or not I am offended by some things does not change whether or not they actually are offensive. Just as it offence may be the wrong response to certain things, failure to be offended may well be not so much a sign of happy tolerance and stoicism as a defective emotional response.

A couple of things to remember

1. I am not denying the reality of that emotional response. If someone is offended, that is their emotional response.

2. The important distinction in ethics between “is” and “ought”

3. I have not yet fleshed out how you respond pastorally to the situation.

At the moment, I am simply saying that there is an objective offensiveness and that when offence isn’t actually there, then to be offended is not the appropriate or helpful emotional response. There ‘s obviously a lot more to say about how and why different people respond in different ways emotionally and we’ll hopefully pick up on those things in the future. However, step one is to recognise that the offense of something is not located in how I feel about it but in the content of that thing itself. From there, we can go on to talk about why I respond in the way I do.