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?
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 in 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.
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”?