It is now general policy to purge “offensive” language in all spheres. Offensive language at work will get you shamed, fired, or sent to sensitivity training. Offensive comments will get you banned from online forums. Offensive speakers on campus will be disinvited, offensive professors fired.
But this raises a question: who defines what is offensive? The contemporary view is that we should defer to the person taking offense. If they are upset and outraged, then who is to say that they are wrong? 1
This view is utterly insane.
Those who cry out “That is offensive! You must stop!” may have genuine grievances. But they may also be engaging in opportunistic bullying. We’ll term this offense-bullying. Here are a few uncontroversial examples:
- The child throwing a tantrum because the parent won’t buy him some toy. “It’s not fair! You’re a meanie!” The child is actually bullying his parents into buying him the toy. A parent should neither believe the accusations nor capitulate to the demands.
- A leader justifying war against another country. For example, Hitler claimed the Poles offended Germany: “Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes. The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier.”
- The tough guy at the bar who growls, “What are you staring, punk?” He is just concocting an excuse for him to bully you.
- The passenger in the Amtrak quiet car who calls out another passenger for talking loudly on his cell-phone. The offense-taker ends up being far louder than the original offender. The offense-taker exploits having the rules on his side to enjoy the thrill of power, the fun of shooting someone else down with some righteous anger.
- The prima donna who curses out the waiter because his food is too cold.
- The customer calling technical support, who claims mistreatment and raises hell, all in order to coerce the representative into granting a discount.
Those taking offense range from being slightly less powerful to significantly more powerful than the offense-giver. Is rarely the truly oppressed who “take offense.” The truly oppressed are downtrodden and submissive. They know better than to take offense – they will just get smacked down.
It should be noted that offense-bullying may not actually be a matter of conscious manipulation. One of the insights of psychology in the last few decades is that the subconscious mind is quite devious. The subconscious makes many calculating decisions on its own, and only interrupts general consciousness as a tie-breaker. The child throwing a tantrum is not thinking, “Hmm, if I make a scene, I think I can get this toy.” There seems to be a subconscious psychological module that understands that it can extract parental resources by triggering the tantrum, and the child genuinely feels upset when throwing the tantrum.
Humans always struggle for power. When making a power-play, it helps to have an excuse. If you don’t have an excuse, then others who might be your allies will be threatened by your wanton aggression. If you have an excuse, your allies will rationalize, “Well, he may have attacked Bob, but he won’t attack me, because I didn’t do that offensive behavior.” And since humans are so good at detecting lies and insincerity, it is better if you genuinely believe these excuses. Thus the subconscious seems to be constantly on the lookout for times and places where you have received a slight, where you can call out that slight and receive backing from allies, and thus feel the pleasure of asserting and reinforcing your own power.
There is a trope of the aristocrat feeling a swell of anger when he bumps into a peasant. “Watch where you are going!” he yells to the peasant. Despite it being the aristocrat at fault, the aristocrat feels real, genuine anger. The subconscious module has made the calculation that the aristocrat is more powerful, and that he can reinforce his power by making the peasant grovel. But the aristocrat never consciously makes the calculation. It is only when you notice the aristocrat bumping into a higher official, and acting differently, that you realize that the peasant’s bump was just an incidental excuse. The real motivation was to reinforce the power relationship.
Similarly, when some campus activists get a speaker disinvited, get a professor fired, or force the administration to apologize, the activists have exercised raw power. The more the administration capitulates, the more grievance will be claimed, the more offense will be taken, the more the activists will flaunt their power. Current law forces colleges and workplaces to avoid creating a “hostile environment.” This law thus gives any member of certain groups the ability to bully the administration or speakers by simply pointing their finger and saying, “That person has offended me!” Does this sound familiar from history? The result has been a spiral of insanity.
Because the subconscious is so tricky, we cannot trust emotions. We cannot trust that anger arises from genuine grievance, even if it feels like genuine grievance to that person2. We cannot naively believe anyone who takes offense – doing so grants a blank check for offense-bullying. Even if some group has been historically oppressed, we still cannot naively believe them, because naive credulity will simply invite false claimants to step forward, and thus crowd out and discredit the people with real grievances. If offense-taking is allowed to go unchecked, you end up with a witch-hunt.
Venture capitalist and former CEO Ben Horowitz wrote a fine article about minimizing corporate politics as a CEO. He points out that if executive A comes to you privately and says that executive B is doing a crappy job, and you are surprised by this criticism, you immediately tell A that you disagree with his assessment and that A should be quiet and go back to work. Then discreetly, you should figure out who is telling the truth and take the appropriate action. But it is absolutely poison to accept executive A’s accusation at face value, doing so would only invite a corporate politics death spiral.
In a nation, allowing group A to make accusations against group B, without allowing independent questioning of the veracity of group A’s claims, is to invite a political death spiral. Banning offensive language against group A, and then making group A the arbiter of what is offensive, is simply a power grab on the part of group A.3
So how should one respond when someone “takes offense”? Adopt the following methodology:
If you are weaker than the person “taking offense”, and the grievance is real, then apologize and make amends. Otherwise, if the offense-taker is engaging in offense-bullying, do one of the following:
- capitulate and do what is necessary to appease them, and then quietly build up your own strength and alliances
- convince them that you really are working toward mutual betterment and that your words were not an offensive action against him, you really are both on the same team
- convince them that you are really much weaker and then petition for redress as a peasant petitions a lord
If you are equal to or stronger than the offended person, then follow Ben Horowitz’s advice:
- If their grievance is legitimate, and submitted via proper channels, you fix the problem.
- If you don’t think their grievance is legitimate, you firmly reject their complaint.
- If you are unsure, you tell them that you will fully investigate, but in the mean time they should focus on work and not openly point fingers
- If their grievance is legitimate, but they blow it way out of proportion and commit infractions of their own, then you rebuke them and penalize them for their infractions. Then quietly fix their grievance later on, making it clear that their grievance would have been fixed sooner if they had petitioned via the normal channels.
Update: I have written a part two, in which we apply the theory of offense-bullying in order to analyze the origins of the Ferguson riots.
Unless the offense-taker is "privileged" in which case their protests are ignored or mocked.↩
Furthermore, if we simply wanted that person to feel less anger, we could do accomplish this by completely shutting them down. When the parent teaches the child, "Life is not fair. Your tantrums will earn you nothing. Further outbursts will only make Santa angry," the child stops throwing tantrums, stops getting upset over slights. To appease the child will only create a spoiled Veruca Salt. It is not the grievance that creates the anger. It is the opportunity for power and advancement that creates the anger. The grievance is the excuse.↩
"Taking Offense" actually means what the word root suggests it means. You are claiming that the other person has gone on offense against you, and you are giving them a warning to back down. So it is quite ridiculous when people say that offensive language be banned on a certain forum, especially when that ban only goes one way. Banning offensive language against group A is really building a ratchet to advance group A's interests. Group A can go on offense, and take ground. If you try to take back that ground, by definition, you have to go on counter-offensive, and by definition, you are being offensive to Group A.↩