In the land of 2018, people talk of “The right not to be offended,” as Cathy Newman did in her interview with Jordan Peterson. It was presented as if this right was universally accepted. The fact that this would be considered superior to the right to freedom of speech shows us how much our society has changed. Not being offended as a “right” and the right to freedom of speech are mutually exclusive.
Feeling offended is entirely natural and expected. Egoic and prideful creatures as we are, it would be surprising if anyone in the whole world had not felt the sting of offense at one point in their life or another. We all have our sensitive subjects, chips on our shoulders and insecurities that serve as trigger points for us. Even the most emotionally balanced person has their sore points.
That said, it is a mistake to take that fact, that people will always be offended, as proof that being offended confers on us any special sort of right. JBP responded perfectly to Newman’s invocation of “rights”: “In order to be able to speak, you have to risk being offensive,” thereby turning the tables on her. The only way you could successfully avoid being offensive to anyone would be to stop talking forever (which as a journalist would be quite a pickle). Still, someone might be offended by your actions or your mere existence. There’s no getting around it – someone at one point or another will not like what you have to say.
The proper response to this is not to minimize our offense to others. Offensive is always subjective and occurs on a whim. It’s based on the emotional state of the beholder, which changes with the wind. It’s impossible to keep track of it. Moreover, why should we? Perhaps there are more important values we want to preserve when it comes to our speech, e.g. the truth. If the truth happens to be offensive to some people, it isn’t obvious that we should lie or censor ourselves.
No, the “right not to be offended” is unsustainable, and at worst, an abomination. This is because being offended is not a good thing. In fact, we should be trying our hardest in our daily lives not to be offended by anything. Ideally, the worst insults to our name and character would bounce off us. We should epitomize resilience in the face of nasty words.
Fundamentally, being offended is a form of pride – our egos are so precious that mere words can hurt us. Being hurt by what people say is actually a useful signal that there is something in our psyche that needs to be worked out. There is some insecurity or sensitivity there that is neurotic and fragile.
If a man bursts into a fit of rage after being called a sissy, we would rightly call him out as an idiot. Why then do we mollycoddle every 19-year-old that ever heard a mean word? They’re both forms of egoism that can be dispensed with to benefit all.
The wise of ancient times almost always taught stoicism in the face of emotional adversity. Pride is one of the seven sins. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek if someone strikes us. The Hindus see yoga as a method for transcending, amongst other things, our fickle and illusory instinctive emotions. Buddha would tell us that “offense” is relative. You’ll never see seeking out safe spaces cited as timeless wisdom.
St John of the Cross told us:
Disquietude is always vanity, because it serves no good. Yes, even if the whole world were thrown into confusion, and all things in it, disquietude on that account would be vanity.
We should be solid in the face of any kind of adversity, which includes the barbs thrown at us by others in their speech. There is nothing so self-serving as claiming special personhood on the basis that you may or may not have had your feelings ruffled by what someone said. It is an attempt to elevate yourself above others and therefore a form of soft tyranny.
This is not to say that we should go out of our way to be offensive to others, or even not keep it in mind when we speak. It is important specifically in personal conversation to know how much to trigger someone, if you go there at all. On the public stage, you must speak the truth no matter what, but the point is not to be deliberately offensive (unless they really deserve it). The point is that truth is more important than you, the offendee, being free from having your emotions tickled.
If anything, you should be grateful that you’d been gifted the opportunity of insight into your physiology. Yes, it hurts, but it is possible to look at it objectively. Take in the data and learn from it – ah, that’s interesting that I was offended by that, I wonder why that is. Maybe there’s something in my past that I haven’t been addressing. Maybe I have unconscious negative beliefs about myself that I need to bring into the light. See it as an introspective process, and be happy that you’ve been given the information.
Admitting to being offended should not, contrary to Twitter opinion, give you the right to sympathy and groveling. We should be embarrassed to be offended. We should apologize to those who have offended us by their speech. Either what they have said is true, and therefore there’s nothing to object to, or it is false, and the offender is incorrect and must retract the statement. The emotional reaction to either isn’t important. We go through youth so as to learn to deal with our emotions.
This all becomes more serious when the law gets involved – concerning this aforementioned dichotomy between the right not to be offended, and the right to freedom of speech.
Being offended is not a form of being victimized. There is no subjective element to victimhood. A victim requires a criminal and a crime. The crime has to be objective, universal and precisely defined. Being offended is subjective, wishy-washy and poorly defined. In many cases of “offense”, there is no actual evidence that someone was actually offended by it – it is simply someone calling offense on behalf of other people. This is akin to someone accusing another of assault because someone else “may have been assaulted” by it. Where’s the claimant?
What’s offensive to one is the height of insight and hilarity to another. If such a Tweet, or video, or book, or article is censored on behalf of the offendee, where is the compensation for the others deprived of humor?
Above all, all this talk forgets that the law is for one thing only: to protect and restore personal rights and property rights. Assault is against the law because it is an infringement on somebody’s body – we own our bodies and have the right not to have it molested in any way. Theft is against the law because it is the forceful appropriation of someone’s property. We have the right to the fruits of our labor or trade, and stealing is in violation of that. Whose property rights, exactly, are infringed by an ill-mannered comment?
When you invoke the concept of “rights”, you’re necessarily bringing the law into the equation. You can’t build a system of law on such loose foundations. To introduce any legislation on anything related to the concept of subjective offense is dumb and wrong. Really we should be denouncing these offense junkies as prideful wastrels who really ought to become monks.
You can read more by James Smith on Think Liberty here.