Offence -a response to some challenges to my approach

I am enjoying thinking through what it means to offend and be offended – I hope you are enjoying the discussion and finding it useful too. My primary concern when writing anything for faithroots is to think about the pastoral usefulness of what we are discussing. This takes precedent over knock about debate for me.

However, there are times when debate can be useful as it helps us to sharpen our thinking. Stephen Kneale has kindly come back and engaged further with me on this and I think it will be useful to our thinking about the pastoral implications to engage with his objections -so I want to take a little more time to respond to his articles on the subject.

So, let’s pick up on his responses here

  1. A question of conflation

Stephen thinks that I am conflating two things. He says:

“There is the issue of objective moral values (which, as I stressed in my original post, definitely do exist) and there is the issue of subjective offence. The reason Dave denies that offence is subjective is that he conflates it with matters of objective morality. But, as I also pointed out in my original post, these things do not necessarily go hand in glove.”

It is worth noting first of all, that we often have to think about things that are both closely related and distinct. It is a frequent and important principle in theology that there are things that we must not confuse together but nor should we separate them. So, when Stephen says that he thinks I am

“Trying to argue that objective moral values and offence are the same thing, or at least should go hand in glove.”

This is important because, saying that something is the same as another thing is quite different to saying that it goes hand in glove -and it is important for Stephen to identify which of those two things I am saying. You see Stephen goes on to argue that:

“My point is simply that they are not the same and are often out of kilter.”

This is fascinating because one of the key things I’ve been looking at in these articles is why our emotional response might be “out of kilter” with the cause. Now, if I think that something is identical, then it won’t be out of kilter, but if I think it goes hand in glove, then there are plenty of reasons why it could be. If I think the two are closely related then I can say that offense is rooted in an objective moral value without insisting that every breach of a moral value will be offensive.

So, no, I don’t think there’s a problem of conflation here.  Rather, what you will notice that I am doing is that I am looking at the “objective moral value” itself, which Stephen accepts exists and I’m asking “what are the characteristics of that objective moral value.”  I want to suggest that the moral value itself has an emotional quality to it. This means that when we assess the value, we don’t make just make a cold intellectual assessment of the rightness or wrongness of the act.  Offensiveness is a way of saying something about the moral nature of the act. It is part of the assessment we make of its goodness or otherwise.

This is helpful because it reminds us that God does not just describe sin as right or wrong. He describes it in language that relates to offence.  For example, in Proverbs 6:16-19, he identifies a list of things that he hates and that are detestable to him.

Stephen goes on to say:

“So, when Dave suggests I would not want to say racism is a subjective issue, he is quite right. But that has nothing to do with whether I am offended by it and everything to do with the fact that, by good and necessary consequence, scripture says such discrimination is sinful. Racism is a matter of objective moral values; our offence toward it is not a matter of objectivity but subjectivity.”

However, my argument has never been “You determine goodness by your offence or lack of offence to it.” In fact, that has been my point all along, that a society which assesses rightness or wrongness purely on how it feels about something is in a mess.

The goodness of a marriage is not based on whether or not we feel happy about it. I may feel indifferent, someone else may feel jealous, indeed, they may feel offended by the marriage announcement. The goodness of the event is objective. However, I want to say more than that. I want to say that it is a happy occasion -that happiness and not sadness or offence is the right response because the emotional should primarily be rooted in the objective qualities of the thing, not in my feelings.

This is not to deny that our feelings may be out of kilter with the event and that there may be a multitude of reasons for this but I am describing what ought to be, not what is. This means that responding to my argument that offence is ‘objective’ by saying that offence is not objective because you don’t feel offended by certain things doesn’t really work as an argument does it.  My whole point is that the something is offensive or not regardless of how you feel about it or assess it. I will come back to that point a little later on.

What I want to pick up on finally here is Stephen’s complaint that I have misunderstood him because he is not saying that moral values change subjectively but that our assessment of those values may change over time whilst how we feel in terms of being offended is distinctly subjective. My point here is very simply that the argument he makes proves too much because he shows how our responses to certain things around racism and gender have changed over time and that is exactly the point that the person who believes in subjective values wants to make.  They want to say that we value things differently now because those decisions are subjective.  Stephen seems to want to argue that there is something objective about how we value things but then seems to exclude emotional descriptors from it.

This is important, because I am arguing here that emotional descriptors are an important element of how we describe the value of something. It is important because he is simply describing the challenge we constantly have when valuing things. For example, one thing we want to value is “beauty.” Is “beauty” objective? Can we describe certain things as “beautiful” and others as “ugly”?  Well, as a Christian who believes that God created this World and that we have messed it up through the Fall, I think I do want to talk about objective beauty but I have a problem with that because there is an old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  I see some things as beautiful whilst others do not. I suspect what is happening there is that because we find are finite and fallen, there will be things that are beautiful about all of us and all things as well as things that are not. We are probably more alert to different aspects of that beauty.  So, I will focus on some beautiful characteristics of a person, picture, piece of music, whilst another person will focus on the less than beautiful aspects. I suspect that this will help us think about why we see different responses to offence too. I may be more or less alert for a variety of reasons to the offensiveness or otherwise of something.

  1. How Do we talk about offence?

Stephen’s next argument is that I am talking about offence in a way that the dictionary does not and in a way that we would not think about/talk about it.

Stephen supplies one dictionary definition from the Google Dictionary. So, let’s deal with that first of all. The definition he chooses is for “offensive”:

“causing someone to feel resentful, upset, or annoyed.”

The first problem here is that Stephen has chosen a definition that does not really say anything about whether we are dealing with something objective or subjective. It simply describes the cause and effect.  The question I want to keep asking is whether the upset/annoyance is rooted in me or in the intent/event? Remember that my argument all along has been that yes, there may be subjective reasons why I do or do not take offence but that the true cause of offence should be rooted in whether the thing itself is offensive and that my subjective and variable response does not change the objective offensiveness of something.

However, Stephen has only given one dictionary definition and when we are trying to get to grips with the meaning of a word it is worth remembering that definitions can be improved upon. Therefore it is worth having a look at a few other dictionaries.

Here is Merriam Webster for any American readers:

offense, resentment, umbrage, pique, dudgeon, huff mean an emotional response to or an emotional state resulting from a slight or indignity. offense implies hurt displeasure.”

Here is the Collins definition

Offence or an offence is behaviour which causes people to be upset or embarrassed.

Finally, it would be inappropriate to consider a definition without checking the Oxford English Dictionary wouldn’t it? Our edition says that offence means “resentment or hurt” whilst to offend is “to cause to feel hurt or resentful.”

None of those definitions require us to assume that offence is “subjective” and in fact, they all focus our attention on the feeling of offence having a cause outside of the person who feels it/takes it.

The other point Stephen raises is to do with how we talk/think about offence normally. Now, this is important because this gets to the nub of my argument. My whole point is that some people have been thinking about and talking about this in the wrong way. So it’s vital that we identify who we are talking about.

I want to suggest that treating offence as something we can describe objectively is counter-intuitive because we are used to social commentators talking about offence as something purely subjective and we are increasingly used to the Law talking that way so that we expect the question to be “Did someone find it offensive?” rather than “was it actually offensive?” In the same way, we increasingly put the focus on “Do you feel discriminated against, threatened, harassed?” rather than “were you discriminated against, threatened or harassedL”  So, to be sure, some people would find the way I am talking about offence somewhat counter-intuitive.

However, that’s where I think there is a major disconnect. Whilst the law and commentators have decided to focus on the subjective feeling, I suspect that you will find that rarely does the complainant think in those terms. The person who says “I was offended by ….” does not merely want to tell me about their feelings, they are telling me that they evaluate the thing itself as offensive.  They don’t see the issue as within themselves but as caused from the outside. They see it as objective, the words, actions, smell really are offensive.  That’s why it is so important when objective offence isn’t present to understand what is causing that response.

And this links me back to the discussion about definitions because Stephen has focused on two emotions “resent” and “annoyance” but notice again two things about the defintions. First of all, that they also include words such as “upset”, embarrassment, hurt and displeasure.  Secondly, notice that some of the dictionaries include a list of synonyms. Again, when I am thinking about how people who describe being offended or suggest that something is offensive then they are trying to say more than that they found it annoying. There is a greater sense of distress about it. Or to put it another way, resentment and annoyance are not equivalent to offense.

  1. I can choose to be offended or not

Stephen’s third argument is that there are things which people say and do which are objectively wrong but that he chooses not to be offended by them. He gives the following example

“For example, we might choose to not take offence when someone fails to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour. That position is objectively wrong on a Christian understanding; it doesn’t necessarily mean the position is (or should be) objectively offensive to us inasmuch as it causes us resentment and annoyance.”

Now, this is a brilliant example because first of all, he is right, we do not tend to treat their rejection of Jesus as offensive. Secondly there are good reasons why we would not respond by taking offence because we are moved by compassion as we see people blinded by sin and because we want to keep reasoning with people and urging them to turn to Christ. It is possible for me to be self-controlled in this area.

Secondly, we might note my point above that Stephen is arguing against conflating objective morality with offence so the two are the same thing but the argument doesn’t work if we are simply saying that offence is related to objective morality.  I can say that all true offence is caused by objectively wrong things without having to say that all objectively wrong things cause offence.

Thirdly, and I think this is key, even taking point 2 into consideration, let’s look again.  Is it inoffensive to reject the one true Son? Is it inoffensive to turn your back on the one who died for your sin? Is it inoffensive to share in the guilt of those who nailed Christ to the Tree and those who mocked him there?  I want to suggest ever so gently that this gets us to the heart of the matter. There is objective offense in humanity’s rejection of it’s Lord and Saviour. That offence is directed at God himself.  This is part of our understanding of the depth of sin. The problem is not just a breach of rules or a difference of opinion over authority and direction of travel.  There is an honour/shame factor here (read Anselm on this) that I don’t think our culture gets -and I want to suggest that this links to our understanding of offence.


I think it may be possible that Stephen and I are talking past each other a little here. I think the reason for this may be that he is focusing on the way that we respond in terms of being offended. I don’t disagree with him that people respond in different ways. I just happen to think that this does not take away from the objective nature of offence. I also think this is an example of thinking about “is” and “ought”. I agree with him that much of how we respond is focused subjectively but I am questioning whether it ought to be like that.

Anyway, have a read of Stephen’s article too. Even though we disagree – I think there are still some interesting points for consideration there. While your at it have a look at some of his other posts on a variety of topics including things we are both passionate about including urban-cross cultural mission.