“We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” Do you agree?

Modern society places great emphasis on not giving or taking offence. It is the reason why so many people support, and so many others are annoyed by, the idea of ‘political correctness’. But should we?Offence

The quote was from Abraham Lincoln; and we have a prima facie (at first sight) urge to agree with it. But this does not mean it is beyond dispute. In fact the statement is both imbalanced, and also inconsiderate of human emotion. The taking and giving of offense is both part of human nature, and also purposeful. Indeed as Thomas Carlyle once said:

“No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.”

Offense giving and taking are most often the least honourable courses to take. And nobody likes the person who’s quick to give or take offense. But let’s face it; emotions get a point across as reason just never could. And taking offense is an emotive reaction. Imagine you’re a Palestinian or an Israeli person, and while you live in London you meet someone who doesn’t know anything about Israel and the holocaust, or Palestine and the human rights crisis (if you don’t know already, you should note that the number of Palestinian refugees stands at a similar figure to the number of Jews killed in the holocaust). Imagine not taking offense when that person makes stupid remarks about people in the region. Wouldn’t that be a good time to start taking offense, in order to ensure that such stupid remarks are not repeated?

In the political world, umbrage seems to be a powerful tool in twenty first century politics. Announce that the opposition’s or media’s tactic is outrageous and offensive, and you will immediately frame a public response; not in terms of whether that opposition/media point has logic, but rather, whether or not they are in the wrong. In other words it shifts the negative focus somewhere else, and leaves only sympathy behind. After all, who can’t empathise with someone who’s been offended?

There are two responses to such umbrage in politics. One comes from the logic of Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say. But I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The quote actually comes from Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 biography of Voltaire, whose opinions she was attempting to summarise. It was her interpretation of Voltaire’s attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius, and his controversial book De l’esprit. But nevertheless, the quote has gained a great deal of attention, and been repeated many times by those who believe that we should be entitled to both give and take offence as we please.

The second response is captured by widespread laws and conventions against denying the Holocaust (it is illegal inRacism in tabloids Germany, Austria, Romania, Hungary, Belgium, France, Israel, Luxembourg and many other places – in Austria it can earn you 6 years in jail), by Germany’s ban on the publishing of Mein Kampf (to be lifted in 2015), by the Islamist reaction to a series of Danish cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and by even neo-liberal groups who aim to censor the press as a means to mitigate the spread of false and misleading information such as is spread about by tabloid papers.

The two opposing views understandably create quite a bit of animosity, and trigger a lot of offence.

against press censorship

But the very fact that a debate on whether or not we should be permitted to offend causes a torrent of offence giving and receiving, surely proves that it is both natural, and also to an extent unavoidable. In the economist’s ‘ultimate game’, designed to teach us about human nature, Player A is given 20 $1 bills, and told that in order to keep any of the money, A must share it with Player B. If B accepts A’s offer, they both pocket whatever they’ve agreed to. If B rejects the offer, they both get nothing. Economists expected pure rationality at first; A would propose the lowest possible amount i.e. 1 dollar. And B would accept, knowing it was better than nothing. But in fact what happened was that when the amount given was 7 dollars or less, most people took such offence that they preferred rejecting the offer in order to teach A a lesson, rather than taking the lower amount. Indeed in Descartes’ Error, neurologist Antonio Damasio argues that humans who behave purely rationally are in fact brain-damaged. Now one could of course argue, as I would, that punishing player A based on the offence caused was in fact entirely rational. But the offence which lies at the heart of the matter still seems to call the shots.

The question that remains for you to answer, is, should such offence giving and taking be calling any shots? Was Lincoln right that “we should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it”?

8 comments

  • I think it’s in our nature to take offence by the words of others. We want people to believe us, to see our view of things and become angry when they do not. But, to give offence is less of a part of us. If more people were careful with their words and truly cared for their brothers and sisters in humanity, this world would be a better place. But, the world isn’t like that and somehow we still endure

  • When someone claims to be offended or hurt or treated unjustly on the basis of some standard they have themselves created, I just figure it is their thinking that made the situation so it is their problem not mine.

  • Thanks for your comments! It’s a very intriguing idea that we might be more likely to take offence than give it in terms of our human nature. I think it’s very perceptive in fact, because if it is human nature to constantly be on the lookout for sources of offence, then it explains why we sometimes find it easier to look inwards than outwards, why we’re often so much more judgemental of ourselves than others, and why ideas such as liberalism gain such popularity. And from the comments of Waltsamp we can also see why this ‘natural’ style of thinking creates so many problems. So the fact that we are increasingly questioning whether or not we should allow ourselves to become offended may in fact be part of a new step in human thinking. What do you think? Will offence forever be a part of human nature? Or is it absurd to suggest that we are stuck with such a thing?

  • > Wouldn’t that be a good time to start taking offense, in order to ensure that such stupid remarks are not repeated?

    Not necessarily. Emotions can be good to lead our reasonings about these matters but when it comes to actual practice, I think we should stick to reason in order to justify our response. The appropriate response to an offensive act shouldn’t rely on how offended we are. Not to mention the fact that we all know people who get offended all too easily.

    So taking offence is not necessary. We should indeed respond to offensive acts but we should remain rational as we do so. It’s a good way to ensure fairness and proportionality in the way offenders are treated.

  • It’s strange. My rational side agrees with you Matt. And yet experience tells me that there are times when emotional responses are the only responses that actually make people listen (if used sparingly). I’ll give you an example.


    In a family of four, two people often argue. They are quick to form opinions, and the more they argue their point, the more entrenched it becomes in their heads. At a gap in the conversation one of the other two family members tries to assert reason, but it’s too late. They won’t even let him have the time to speak. And this happens each week for a month. Then, in the next month he decides that he will experiment.

    “Why do they never let me speak? At least they pretend to listen to each other before telling them to shut up. Maybe I should try shouting too…”

    With this thought in mind, he (let’s call him Tim) awaits the now predictable Sunday fight. He’s a little nervous about deliberately getting emotional in order to be heard, as it’s out of his character. But it seems like a rational experiment, and so he remains convinced.

    The shouting begins. Tim is forgotten as normal. When suddenly…

    “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU JUST SAID THAT!!” shouted Tim.

    The family quietened. All attention was on Tim.

    “I’m sick of all this shouting. You’re both wrong! And what you just said then was bloody offensive! This is how it is…”

    Ten minutes later, the family was re-thinking their positions.

    Of course you can say that this tactic worked because it shocked the family to hear something so out of character from Tim. But if you put it all on that then I’d say you’re missing part of the picture. For someone who’s normally calm like Tim, his outburst didn’t only shock; it said to his family that if he’s got to the point where he’s reacting like this then he must really care. And of course that begs the question; why does he care so much? Challenge someone’s view directly, and they’re likely to get defensive. But make them question why you think like you do and who knows what could happen?

    • Very nice. Your story illustrates your point well. Tim is a real Machiavelli. And I agree with everything in that comment, I just don’t think it goes against my own comment.

      Tim is not being irrational. He’s being emotional on purpose to get attention and get people to reconsider their own points of view. That’s all fair game. Using emotions and psychology is a good way to get people to care about something. Charities use emotions when they give a name to the child your donation is supposed to help. Politicians do that when they link their debates to the “kitchen table” or the “regular Joe”.

      In other words, Tim is using emotions to market his point of view, but the strength of his argument does not rely on the strength of his emotions.

  • Firstly, I question the simplicity of the economists “ultimate game” and what it purports to explain.

    For me it is not irrational that player B turned down the dollar because people do put a value on their principles. As the expression goes, “everyman has his price”.

    So a person whose principles are doggedly egalitarian may refuse everything except a perfect 50/50 split, even if player A offers him $11.

    Secondly, rationality is not universally identical due to the fact that we do have emotions which will affect the ‘impact’ a decision has upon us. Example, a person with a high emotional resistance to fear will happily stand 2 metres from the edge of a cliff for $10. A person with a nervous disposition will most likely need $1,000 to convince them to do the same, and for $10 they would only be prepared to view the cliff edge from 30 metres.

    So, is it irrational then to be offended. Well, no. I contend that emotions are simply chemicals which influence a person, and that these chemicals are triggered at different sensitivity levels for different people. Therefore, some will likely be offended and produce either the flight or fight response, whilst others may not be offended at all.

    In conclusion I suppose I am saying that rationality would only work if humans could control the production of chemicals within their brain from conscious thought alone, or if humans did not have such chemicals in the brain in the first place.

  • Thanks Sean! Your comments echo what was written in the rationality post (https://biggestquestions.com/2010/05/16/are-humans-rational-creatures/#comments). However I have to say that I have since that post somewhat changed my mind on it. If being rational is simply behaving in a manner which can be explained then a stone is rational, since when it breaks in two from geological pressure, it is doing so in a way that can be understood. You link rationality with consciousness, and this comes much closer to the truth. And yet as Kahneman and Tversky argued as far back as 1973 is that heuristics imply that many of our actions are not related to reason or emotion, but rather simple computational errors. Are these errors rational? Some of them are conscious e.g. when you play a word association game with someone to trick them into saying the wrong thing. And from this point of view you could say errors are rational; but it becomes a little more dubious, and each time we talk of more things under the bracket of rationality we make the concept more ambiguous, until it comes to the fact that we are actually challenging the existence of irrationality.

    However, irrational or not; the question was not a positive statement, but rather a normative question. Should we take offence, or try to avoid it in all circumstances?

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