From (Another Blog’s) Comments: An Ethic of Offense

Dr. Khawaja and his colleague Dr. Riesbeck have a very lively discussion on the ethics of offensive behavior on his blog, which I was privileged to join and offer my thoughts.

The post and discussion are all worth reading, but for now I’ll just quote the summary I gave of both Dr. Khawaja’s and Dr. Riesbeck’s points, along with some of their comments, with edits for flow:

“As a general principle, it is better to not offend than to offend. This is dependent on the nature of the offense, of the offender, of the offendee, and of the status of the place in which the offense occurs. Simply stating “don’t offend” like it is a categorical imperative ignores the nuance, the uses and abuses inherent to offensive sayings and actions.
-The nature of the offense is whether it was deliberate (I go up to a devout Muslim in the street and whisper discretely “Islam is false”) or accidental (I put up my feet in a Greek restaurant).
-The nature of the offender is a question of whether he is a deliberate or an accidental offender, which is often epistemically impossible to determine without intimate knowledge.
-The nature of the offendee is a question of how the offense will be borne, and whether it is profitable in some way to offend (see principles 2 and 3 below). If I am speaking with my friend, who is Muslim, and who I know is a relatively open-minded person, I can say to him “Islam is false” in the course of a conversation on religion, because we are both assumed to possess a nature of open enquiry, and the nature of the place in which we are speaking is considered to be open (more on this in the next point). If I am at a protest against America, where effigies of the president and the flag are being burned, and angry Muslims with Kalashnikovs are shooting into the air, prudence alone dictates that I keep my opinions to myself.
-Finally, the status of the place where the offense takes place is important. If I want to walk around naked at the Folsom Street Fair, a place specifically designated for the expression of non-mainstream sexuality, then that is okay, because it is a space for such people. If I want to do the same thing in Notre Dame cathedral, then I am infringing on the space of others, who do not want to see my nakedness, and have a stronger claim to that space. However, in neutral, public space such as a city park, it is a little bit trickier. Who really “owns” that space, especially when there are groups within the same society and culture that have different ideas for the park?

This idea is based on three principles, really just one:
1. In social intercourse, we ought to act so as to bring out the best in the people with whom we interact, and not the worst.
2. We must do this at a minimum cost to our own best principles
3. We must do this at a minimum cost to the well-being of the other parties”

Discussion centered around several thought experiments:
1. Putting up one’s feet in Greece, where it is purportedly considered offensive.
2. Printing a picture of the prophet Muhammed in a textbook and using it in class
3. Public displays of affection.
4. Saying that Islam is false.

I’ll quote Dr. Khawaja in his response to No. 2:

“I think the image should be published regardless of the offense it may cause. The ban on images of the Prophet is patently irrational. Implicitly, it involves an attack on the very idea of mimetic art, and it does so in a cultural context where mimetic art is perfectly acceptable. Arguably, it’s not even an authentically Islamic idea.

Someone may argue that an image of the Prophet Muhammad has no educational value, but I think that’s too narrowly informational a conception of educational value. Granted, the image cannot literally tell us what the Prophet Muhammad looked like. Granted, it cannot impart specific information about his life. But that isn’t its point. Image-production is an act of the imagination. We put images in books because it’s pleasant to do so–for producer as well as consumer–and students should eventually come to see that and ideally participate in it. When Muslims attack non-derisive imagistic depictions of the Prophet, they are asking those of us at home in a mimetic culture to subordinate our justifiable desire for mimetic expression to their iconoclasm. We have no reason to accept that, and we should not do so. After all, if we took iconoclasm seriously–more seriously than its tribalist defenders tend to, who haven’t quite grasped its point–we would have to emulate the Taliban and regard all images as somehow suspect and offensive. In that case, if we followed the norm to its logical conclusion, we’d have to avoid reprinting images of any kind in any public setting. We’d then have to consider dismantling all public art of a mimetic nature, as is done in Afghanistan, and as is sometimes contemplated in Pakistan.”

There is plenty of room to disagree with the eudaimonistic principle, especially concerning the many exceptions that were deemed necessary to make it coherent. For example, Dr. Khawaja highlights what I will call the “asshole clause” as an exception:

“…there are interactions in which we’re obliged to deal with people we can’t avoid dealing with, and who by their previous actions have forfeited a very strong claim to sensitivity on our part. I think such dealings should be minimized, but they can’t be entirely avoided. People like this need to be divided into those who deserve intentional offense, and those who merely deserve foreseeable but not intentional offense. You have to be a real asshole to go into the first category. You just need to have done some asshole things to fall into the second.”

With such people, we do not desire to bring out the best in them, presumably because we consider them to be irredeemably noxious individuals. The general principle to not offend is the basis for this theory of social interaction, and since it has been suspended, so too has its subordinate principles: to minimize harm to our principles, and to the sensibilities of our interlocutor. Calling an asshole an asshole to his face presents no issue, even if it is done offensively and without tact, because it may be in our best interests to retaliate more vehemently against a real ass than we would against a more sensible person.

Indeed, it might be said that doing so would do the asshole a favor. “Shocking” a person out of their bad habits through a corresponding breach of social etiquette is often an effective tactic. To cite my own experience, I once had a friend who was widely regarded as a real asshole by all the friends in his social circle, me included. Case in point: during a rainstorm he intentionally pushed me into a puddle, and then laughed as I got soaked. We eventually all told him he was an asshole and that we wouldn’t spend any more time with him. He mended his ways immediately. Dr. Riesbeck earlier credits his personal intuitions as a guide for determining the costs and benefits of giving – or not giving – offense in these cases. In general, I would agree that intuitions aren’t too far off the mark. Everyone knows an asshole when he sees one, after all.

Furthermore, even if the general principle is maintained, it will often conflict with other principles, that may have greater weight. Sometimes not giving offense, and maintaining candor, authenticity, or rationality, are opposed goals. At this point, it must be asked whether giving offense offers a greater benefit to the offender, which outweighs the harm to the offender by not giving offense, and the harm to the offendee given by the offense (apologies for the tortured prose). To quote Dr. Khawaja one more time:

“If a norm is patently irrational, it offends the dignity of any rational agent, and there can’t be a reason to respect it. Personally, I think the full-veil burqa falls into this category. Similarly, a norm that requires lying must be rejected: there are extreme conceptions of politeness in some cultures that require people to lie to one another. Arguably, the Pakistani norm of takallaf–or assiduous attention to formal etiquette–is one of them. (It’s not often remarked that both takallaf and ikhlas (sincerity) are supposed to be norms of Pakistani culture, but takallaf systematically violates iklhas.)”

I enjoyed the discussion, and I would like to open it up to further comment and critique from the fine readers of NOL. What do ya’ll think?

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5 thoughts on “From (Another Blog’s) Comments: An Ethic of Offense

    • What? Mr Opinion himself has nothing to say on the matter?

      I doubt that.

      I doubt that very much.

      I think Dr K hits is mostly right in regards to respect, at least to an extent: I think lying can be a force for good in the world, especially if it involves sexual intercourse (I don’t mean the act of coitus, I mean the process of getting there).

      Is there something in this discussion that I might have missed that distinguishes between disrespecting something and disrespecting something before then calling for it to be criminalized?

  1. A person has to take an offense in order for the comment to be a offense. A muslim who cares is someone believes his religion is false is taking the offense. If he did not and let it slide or see it as amusing, then there was no offense. One can call me an ass hole but if that person provides no logical reason for his comment then he or she is irrational – so why bother being insulted by an irrational person?

    Just grow up – forget the offense unless the person can provide a valid reason for it that is logical to you.

  2. Certain Muslims will always take offense to a caricature of the Prophet. Because offense is the default position. The position is used as a prop and tool, to further strengthen the ideological belief system in supremacy of the Prophet. As a tool, it is used to make society see Islam and the Prophet as beyond reproach.

    We live in a world/country that has set up a system of offense for profit schemes. It is no longer just being PC that matters. You must take offense to really be able to say your part of the collective. If you do not take offense, you must be deemed un-apathetic and in some cases. Not down with the cause.

Please keep it civil

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