August 22, 2012

That's Offensive

taking offense

Here in the U.S., most of the pressure we face when it comes to our speech is social rather than legal. This is not true everywhere (e.g., countries that enforce strict blasphemy laws), but it does appear to be the case here. While we can each think of examples where one's speech would carry serious legal consequences (e.g., threatening to kill a high-ranking government official), these are not something with which most of us must be concerned regularly. Social pressure, on the other hand, is almost constant.

If you say something others find offensive, you can expect to be called out on it. The point of calling you out is to shame you into not doing it again. We have all experienced this sort of social pressure, and we know how powerful it can be in shaping behavior.

Most of us do not particularly enjoy social pressure designed to restrict our speech. We rail against those who seem perpetually offended. We want to be able to say whatever we want (within the legal limits). And yet, both the political left and the political right in this country routinely seek to inhibit speech with which they disagree. We want to be able to say what we want, but we're often uncomfortable with our opponents being able to do the same. We value our freedom to insult others more than their freedom to insult us.

Most of us would agree that nobody has the right not to be offended. We recognize that this is not a reasonable expectation in a diverse culture. This is part of the problem with political correctness - it stifles dissent even as it claims to be about promoting diversity. And yet, it is difficult to avoid the trap of hypocrisy when we ourselves are offended by something someone has said.

As the cartoon suggests, we'd all be better off if we would remember that "I'm offended" does not mean "It's offensive." I know it feels the same, but it really isn't.

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