Monday, May 21, 2007

Taking Offense

Are we ever justified in taking offense? I think the answer is “no”, by which I mean that when people take offense at a remark, they do so partly because of a fault in themselves; and removing this fault would remove the disposition to take offense.

When I talk about “taking offense” in this post, I do not refer to the act of taking offense on someone else’s behalf. Often we use the word in this way, to mean just that we disapprove of the way in which another person is being treated. We are “offended” by the people who attack Jewish graves, though we may not be Jewish. And I do not refer to our response to an “offense”, in the general sense of the word, which we use broadly to mean something like a “transgression,” a failure to follow the rules. Nor am I talking about a slightly narrower sense of the word, which we use to refer to transgressions against ourselves, things that disgust us, as in an “offensive smell.”

What I mean (I think) is the rising anger that we feel when we feel we have been “defamed”: when we come across words or pictures or actions (usually words) that slight our character. In some circumstances, such as when the slight is false and also lowers us in other people’s opinion, it is clear that we are justified in feeling wronged by such an action. But often we (or at least I) take offense at slights that are not like this, of which noone is aware except ourselves and the perpetrator of the insult. We (or at least I) hear or overhear an unflattering remark and immediately become heated by it, as if an infuriating injury has been inflicted on us.

Sometimes there is a good reason to take some offense at a slight like this, even if it does not diminish us in the eyes of any third party. The slight may be evidence of the speaker’s ingratitude, for example. And the fact that there is one party other than ourselves that thinks ill of us, and who does so on weak rounds, might be reason to feel wronged by that person. But usually (again I speak for myself here) the offense taken is disproportionate to the wrong inflicted. If the slight is false, and clearly false, then it does not take much to set the person right. And if the slight is true, then it is hard to see how any sense of wrong-doing is justified.

In either case, at least half the fault lies with the offended person. In the first case, a person who reacts angrily, who “takes offense”, has only his lack of articulateness to blame for that anger: a perfectly articulate and persuasive person would just calmly show the speaker why he or she is wrong. And in the second case (when the slight is false) surely the person who “takes offense” should not blame the speaker for her anger, but her own insecurity or self-hate, which presumably is what causes her to react angrily to a true portrait of herself. The heated feeling that we associate with “taking offense’ is really a sense of frustration at our own inadequacy.

Not being a perfectly articulate or self-secure person, I find it easier to scoff at those who take offense than to avoid offense myself. To speak personally (with the thought in mind that describing my own condition will cast light on others’) in extreme cases I can successfully avoid taking offense, for the reasons just given. An obviously false slight is easy to disprove; an obviously true slight is not worth railing against. It is when the slight is partially true (either because its import is somewhat vague, because it is precise but we lack the conceptual scheme to distinguish the intended slight from other slights, or because our behavior varies with respect to the fault) that I start to feel prickly, and am most likely to raise my voice or sulk. I wonder if this applies to other people: what really nettles is the slight that is just true enough that it is not easy to persuade the speaker that he is wrong, but is false enough that we feel a righteous desire to do so, and hence to clear our name.

By the above I don’t mean to say, in the case of any offensive slight, that the antagonist is completely blameless. If the offender knows that a slight will cause distress that is greater than any likely consequent good, then surely they have done something wrong, even if a weakness in the protagonist is partly responsible for the distress. If we persuade a person to buy a dud car for an exorbitant price, we do not escape blame simply because the person is woefully misinformed about cars.

Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that part of the blame does lie with the person who suffers the wrong, in the case of the offended person as in the case of the woefully misinformed person.


Supposing all the above is true, what can be taken from it? The lesson, I think, is that an immunity to taking offense is a quality worth aiming for, because in most ordinary people it is a good measure of intellect and self-knowledge. (I say “most ordinary people” because there may be people who are immune to offense, but who are so immune because they simply don’t understand what people say to them, or are too apathetic to care, too lacking in self-esteem to bother with self-defense, or are just extremely mild-mannered.)

To have this sort of immunity means having the confidence and articulateness to show another person why their slight is wrong, when it is wrong. It means recognizing faults when they already exist, and avoiding the temptation to cover up these faults with indignation. And, when a person’s judgment is delicately balanced between truth and falsity, it means being able to make the sort of conceptual distinctions that help one to clarify the meaning of insult, and accordingly to act as one would in the case of a true slight (if it turns out the insult is true) or false slight (if it is not true).

But I think that is a hard ideal to achieve. The lesson for the meantime is that the act of taking offence should not be read as a sign of some wrongdoing on the part of the speaker. Rather it should be read as an indication that, although a fault does lie somewhere in the slighted person, that fault should be looked for in their reaction to the slight rather than in the content of the slight itself.