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An Offensive Post

September 24, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I just listened to a podcast where writer Richard King was interviewed about his book “On Offence: The Politics of Indignation”. As you might have guessed from the title, the book is about how some individuals and groups use real or feigned offence for their own nefarious purposes. It’s a phenomenon I have seen quite a bit of too, so I thought it might be an interesting subject to post a blog entry about.

The way I see it, the primary cause of most cases of offence is not the person making the offensive statement or doing the offensive act, it is the person who finds offence in what is often a fairly inconsequential action.

And it’s ironic that in taking offence and in their reaction to that offence many groups reinforce the original point of the offensive statement. For example, when certain Muslims objected to the famous “Danish cartoons” by rioting and killing who they saw as their opponents they reinforced the original point of some of the cartoons: that Islam is a violent, mindless religion.

And it’s true: Islam is often mindless and violent (and unthinking, and backward, and ridiculous, and… well you get the idea). But the way to try to correct that impression is not to run around in a mindless violent fashion saying “we are not mindless and violent”, it’s actually to be thoughtful and peaceful. The worst violence was started months after the publication of the cartoons after deliberate provocation by religious leaders in the Islamic world and resulted in over 200 deaths. A religion of peace? Really?

If those same Muslim leaders had come forward and said “actually, these cartoons aren’t very funny” (they weren’t) and “while there are some cases of extreme believers performing atrocities in the name of our religion you cannot blame the religion itself” (which is very debatable but at least a point which might be able to be defended) many people – me included – would have been forced to re-examine our opinions.

If you are a Muslim or are just a naturally politically correct person you might find what I said above offensive. Well that’s your problem, not mine. I just wrote about some issues in what I consider a logical and factual way. If what I have said either doesn’t make logical sense or is factually incorrect the best response would be to treat this an an opportunity to correct my ideas by pointing out where I went wrong. I’m happy to be corrected on any issue.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the only source of fake offence is in Islam, or even in religion in general. There are plenty of other places where the phenomenon is also apparent. Of course, few other groups react to being offended by rioting in the streets and murdering people! But it also happens in personal relationships, the workplace, politics, in fact anywhere that people want to influence other people and aren’t too concerned about the rules of fair debate.

In politics fake offence is a common way to avoid answering difficult questions. One politician might act like he is offended when another asks him to justify a race-based policy, for example. Or the suggestion that there might be favouritism or even corruption in a political action is often deflected by a pretence of offence at the mere suggestion of wrongdoing.

And criticising a statement by saying “that is offensive” is meaningless. In fact what should be said is “I find that offensive” because it is a subjective thing. But even saying that isn’t sufficient. It’s like saying “that is wrong” or “that is inappropriate”. What is required is a statement of why something is inappropriate, or wrong, or offensive.

So if a Muslim (sorry to get back to that again, but it really is the most egregious example) finds criticism of their religion as offensive they should say something like “I find that offensive because only 10% of Muslims are violent which is similar to all other religions”. Except, of course, they couldn’t say that truthfully. What they would need to say instead is “I find that offensive because I don’t like people pointing out the huge hypocrisy in my belief system”. But if you are offended for that reason, then you deserve to be offended.

So in many ways when people are offended they should use it as an opportunity to examine their own motivations. When people make stupid statements about groups I identify with (atheists, computer geeks, political liberals, etc) I don’t get offended, I take it as an opportunity to show why they’re wrong. And if they aren’t wrong then I have learnt something. Either way, getting offended is completely the wrong response.

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  1. September 24, 2013 at 4:47 am

    Where was the offensive part? I looked and looked and couldn’t find one thing offensive. I’m offended by that because I feel mislead by the title which lead me to believe there would be offensive material in this post. I feel like writing to the UN to have blog posts classified more legitimately now. It is unfair to all of us who read your blog to be cheated like this.

  2. OJB
    September 24, 2013 at 4:49 am

    That was just a trick on my part! I called it “an offensive post” to attract the attention of readers, but it was just a post *about* offence, not actually offensive itself! Ha ha! Now you’ve got something to really be offended by (or at least mildly displeased :)

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