Monday, May 05, 2008

Reducing Unnecessary Offense

Infinite Injury writes:
It isn’t racist now because it doesn’t suggest any prejudice or dislike and the last thing we would ever want to do is widen the class of comments that we decide express prejudice. We want to reduce the potential for accidental offense not increase it.

Hypersensitivity is a bad thing, and we'd all be better off without it. If you insist on turning yourself into a victim, perceiving slights at every turn, the world will offer ample opportunities to feed your paranoia. But why on Earth would you want to? Chances are: most people do not, in fact, hate you. But it's unnecessarily burdensome to expect them to constantly reassure you of this. Things would be much better if everyone could simply assume the best by default, and only take offense if someone was very clearly intending to insult them.

(Granted, it's perfectly understandable why someone who has suffered from others' malice in the past might be over-sensitized to it in future. I've had similar experiences myself. But it's still unfortunate, so we should want to help people to overcome their hypersensitivity, rather than encouraging it.)

Compare my response to Paul Gowder's suggestion that levelling down may be justified in cases where tolerating an inequality would express disrespect:
I agree that one shouldn't express disrespect. But we should increase freedom. Hence, to avoid unnecessary conflict here, it would be most inadvisable for us to adopt conventions of social meaning according to which increasing freedoms for some was understood as expressing disrespect for others. If such conventions are already present, we should do what we can to undermine and change them.


  1. I don't see where freedom enters in on this. I take it that if someone points out that they find the phrase "so-and-so got gypped" offensive, I'd be less inclined to use it. Doesn't seem like much freedom of expression is lost, it just seems like there is one phrase out of many that I should avoid out of respect for others.

  2. Paul and I were discussing cases of actions that may be expressive of disrespect, e.g. allowing people to buy a good that's inaccessible to the poor may (Paul suggests) express disrespect for the poor. So that's why I was talking about freedom in that quote.

    The connection to the earlier part of the post is that insofar as we can conventionally decide (or "socially construct") meaning, we should tend towards settling on inoffensive meanings. Or as II put it, "We want to reduce the potential for accidental offense not increase it."

    (Given that someone is already offended by a term, sure you might want to avoid using it around them. But I'm talking about a prior issue, namely whether we should be encouraging people to perceive a term as offensive in the first place. The suggestion is that we should not. On the contrary, we should hope to promote perceptions of inoffensiveness as much as possible.)

  3. You wrote, "But it's still unfortunate, so we should want to help people to overcome their hypersensitivity, rather than encouraging it." I don't get why the onus ought to be on the perceiver to overcome their alleged hypersensitivity.

    Consider the following. "A" says the word "faggot" casually, because to "A" that particular word does not connote anything pernicious. "A" meets "B". "B" has been physically abused, someone beat him to near death whilst calling him "faggot". The word is thus associated with that particular traumatic event; personal psychological trauma. In the event of "A" meeting "B", "A" trots a joke using the word "faggot". "B" gets offended. You seem to say, eventually look at the intentions.

    I beg to differ. If I am "B" I want to know what ought to stop me from feeling offended even after I realise it's a joke. There's something pernicious about irresponsibly using some "loaded" words. Perhaps it is because deep-seated trauma is not something that can be easily "treated" -- as rational as I think am, having been gay-bashed I still struggle when somebody casually makes a "faggot" joke around me. I think it is fundamentally people's responsibility to be careful in using certain words; the onus should be on the user not the perceiver.

    Furthermore, my taking offense need not be consistent with the offender's intentions. When somebody makes a "mama" joke about my dead mother, I reserve the right to be offended even if it's a joke. Because my mother is personal to me, as with my sexuality, or my race. They are meaningful to me. When somebody irresponsibly "trivialise" those things affective to me in making a bad joke, as far as I'm concerned, and depends on the severity of the joke, I should be able to punch that person in the face. Am I being hypersensitive? I don't think so.

  4. ynurman - I don't think we actually disagree. My point is simply that we should prefer that words not be "loaded" in the first place. Given that many already are, we should avoid using them. (See my response to Jared, above.) But we should also look forward to a day when they are no longer perceived as "loaded" by anyone, since that's the surest way to ensure that people aren't accidentally hurt.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.