Offence!

Many people already strongly defend the view that no one has the right to not be offended*, I agree completely. In this post I’ll try to stretch the argument even further, and propose that offensive material can, under frequent circumstances, be actively useful. If I’m right, we should promote its production, not sanitise all content and make our intellectual environment safe and dull.

Jesus and Mo make my point twice.

Offence is closely related, but perhaps distinct from righteous indignation; if I had to suggest a distinction, I would propose that offence may be about intangible damage: when the injury applies to something tangible, we may call our response indignation, when the injured object is conceptual (our beliefs, what we regard as sacred, our own sensibility, etcetera) we get offended. I am not saying that this definition is the ultimate, perfect way to identify the emotional state of being offended, however, it does make some sense to me, and importantly, it also suits my current aim (suspiciously) well. For the purpose of this post, I will use the definition above, with the explicit caveat that my own definition may be a little too convenient. If you are unhappy with the definition, I would encourage you to propose some alternatives in the comments.

My regulars readers would know that I am obsessed with our own cognitive limitations, and in particular, how they relate with the mistakes we make. For all the others, here is a schematic recap of why.

Definition: a mistake is an action (or thought) that is enacted to produce a certain effect, but in fact it doesn’t produce the desired results, and sometimes hinders them.

The argument:
1. We all make mistakes, but of course, when we detect one we’ll try to fix it.
2. If we don’t detect a particular class of mistakes, we won’t know how to avoid making the same mistake again.
3. It follows that we may all be doing some mistakes over and over again: we keep repeating the mistakes we don’t detect.
4. Our own cognitive abilities are limited, that’s why we make mistakes. Being cognitively limited, it’s guaranteed that we can systematically fail to detect certain types of mistakes.

Therefore:
C1. It’s likely that most of the mistakes we make go undetected (the argument above describes a closed feedback loop).
C2. When engaged in pure thought, the aim is to generate new ideas that better reflect reality, but since we are, by definition, exploring at the edges of our subjective knowledge, mistakes can easily go undetected.
C3. Philosophical explorations are riddled by undetected mistakes, and therefore it’s a good idea to obsessively try to detect them (and uncover the biases that generated them).
C4. Other people may think differently, and may thus be able to clearly see some of the mistakes we make. As a consequence, we should always welcome criticism, take it seriously, and provide it to others.
C5. From C4, we can also conclude that differences of opinions should be seen as a resource, not as a problem. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to resolve them: we should, because that’s how they become useful.

My last point already links to offence: an offensive proposition is likely to entail a radical difference of opinions, right? Therefore it might bear important information: the reason why you are offended might be directly linked to something you get systematically wrong.

Seems like a pretty bold leap, so let’s see if we can find some supporting evidence.
In fact, I’m writing this post because the supporting evidence is unfortunately haunting all of us: it is present whenever censorship (or worse) is justified by offence. The first case that convinced me I had to write this post is the premature closure of Exhibit B at London’s Barbican. The show was quite obviously designed to be controversial, shocking and even deliberately offensive. I was not planning to visit it, but that’s because of cowardice: I simply didn’t like the idea of feeling deeply disturbed, and I was sure I would have been. The exhibition was turning racism and objectification into a show, producing disgust in the viewers and uneasiness in the performers. There is no doubt about it, the people who did see it were shocked, and as a result lively debate thrived. In my view, that’s a good thing: offence made people discuss the issues deliberately exposed by the show. Objectification, racism and the necessary connection between the two got discussed in the public arena, but also issues about commercialisation and exploitation for financial gain surfaced. All of these connect with the history of Western “civilisations” and with the unspoken assumptions that underline current Western societies. What a surprise: offence does work in this way, it exposes our biases, assumptions and blind-spots. The real problem is that it worked too well: because the show was offensive, it was shut down. Some people (including me) got offended by the censorship, and more debate sparked, this time about the right of being protected from offensive material. This case, ugly as it is, fully supports my hunch: offence can carry important information, whenever you feel offended, there might be something to learn.

Unfortunately, this episode was shortly followed by the horror of Charlie Hebdo. The common element of taken offence is glaringly obvious, I believe. Comparing the two events feels entirely wrong (my cowardice lurks again: I feel uneasy to even talk about it, let alone discuss a marginal aspect of an unjustified tragedy in order to make a point), but it does make my case much clearer: the murderers felt justified by the offence caused by Charlie Hebdo authors. Why is that? Because ridiculing any deeply felt belief is inherently offensive: it injures something insubstantial, but hurts just the same.

In my own understanding, the mechanism goes like this: because of cognitive attraction, we all have deeply held beliefs that justify our own self-image, influence pretty much all of our (conscious and unconscious) choices, and are very hard to modify. Questioning such beliefs is threatening, it may lead to concluding that all your life was a big mistake: nobody likes that. But this is specifically the reason why offence is useful. My own beliefs may feel very solid and well substantiated to me, but they certainly are perfectible: there is always room for improvement. Challenging them therefore is a good thing: it may help me identify a source of my own errors.

This leads me to humour and one cognitive role I suspect it may have. The link between some of the things that make us laugh and their offensive potential is obvious to me, I will therefore take this notion for granted (feel free to question me in the comments). In our context, this link allows us a conjecture that I find fascinating in terms of cognitive science, and illuminating in terms of useful principles to guide our thoughts and actions. The idea is: amongst other uses (by Sophie Scott), it seems to me that laughter (an amusing experience) also happens when our deeply felt beliefs are “safely challenged”. I’m using the scare quotes because the notion of a safe challenge is questionable, but if you start analysing comedy, you will find that it frequently relies on the build-up of some form of uneasy tension, which is then released in an non-threatening and unexpected direction, making us laugh about it. Is it a coincidence that we call the releasing element the punch line? The conjecture therefore is: this mechanism exists because laughter allows us to question our own assumptions in a way that is informative (the unexpected element) and pleasant, or at least, not always repulsive. If I’m right, it would be a cognitive mechanism which contrasts the undesirable (and inevitable) consequences of cognitive attraction. Laughter allows other people to occasionally put our own biases in question, without making us feel threatened and without offending each and every time.

Thus, we found another possible justification of my main point: offensive material is frequently able to teach us something important, because it is offensive. If you are utterly not-convinced, perhaps the king of comedy by offence might help you see my point: Frankie Boyle has written an excellent piece on Offence and Free Speech. Did I say excellent? Indeed. People should learn it by heart, it is that good. It’s hard to pick the best soundbite, so I’ll quote three (my emphasis):

Offence is often simply an attempt to deny reality. Avant-garde film makers get attacked for saying things that are avant-garde; comedians get attacked for making jokes and footballers get attacked for being stupid.

and

I tried to do a routine about why I thought we should be worried about Britain’s “rape culture” on Live at The Apollo recently (and I do feel we’re reaching a crisis point where some people view rape as mere bad sexual etiquette, like patting your cock dry on a tea towel or paying in loose change) only to be told that while the sentiments of the routine were acceptable I just couldn’t say the word rape. If you’re any kind of writer these days the culture seems to be saying “Please challenge and provoke me, redefine how I see the world, while I scream my head off every time I hear something I don’t like.”

His conclusion is:

We don’t live in a shared reality, we each live in a reality of our own, and causing upset is often the price of trying to reach each other. It’s always easier to dismiss other people than to go through the awkward and time consuming process of understanding them. We have given taking offence a social status it doesn’t deserve: it’s not much more than a way of avoiding difficult conversations.

So there you have it, Boyle makes a living out of the art of mixing laughter and offence, and he sees it in the same way: challenging how we see the world is always potentially offensive.

Time to reach some conclusions (in “Writing my own user manual” style) and finish off with a pair of important caveats.

Conclusions:

At the society level: offensive material should be protected because it causes offence. Instead, what is happening around us is that society is capitulating to our stupidest biases; it is protecting people from offensive material. By doing so, it favours all sorts of unwelcome consequences: for starters, it makes us more easily offended as we are less frequently challenged. This makes offence less informative. It also favours homogeneity of thought, a phenomenon that is dangerous in its own right.

At the personal level: whenever I feel offended, I should pay attention and try to find out why. Doing so might help me uncover my own biases.

Caveats:

  1. I am NOT proposing that offensive material is by definition always useful and should be unquestionably accepted. I am saying that it can be useful if and because it points to something questionable. Offensive material should be questioned, that’s how it may become useful. The fact is that whoever produced something offensive has to be as human as I am, so all I’ve said works both ways: whatever we find offensive may be challenging deeply held beliefs that are also justified and useful. In such cases, questioning would expose the bias behind the offensive material, but of course it’s a tricky exercise: it’s always easy to fail to see what valid points your opposition is making.
  2. It’s also important to remember that we should not feed the Moloch. Highly polarised discussions display their own typical and rather fruitless dynamics. If we are to learn something from debates that were ignited by offence, it is imperative to avoid simplistic polarisations.

Notes and further reading:

*The list of people who oppose the “right to not be offended” naturally starts with Salman Rushdie. For more recent arguments, see: Samira Ahmed at Index on Censorship or Melanie McDonagh on the Spectator. The humanist and atheist crowd is naturally very vocal on the subject, see for example The Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression and this piece by Jerry Coyne (exemplifies the same dangers I discuss here). Finally, there are of course numerous counterarguments, I find most of them both predictable and weak; one worthy exception comes from Alan Haworth, it is also useful to reinforce my first caveat. [back]

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Posted in Ethics, Politics, Stupidity
5 comments on “Offence!
  1. dancinglemur says:

    This is quite literally the best thing I have read in a while. You have an extremely good command of your subject. I look forward to reading more.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Thanks!
      But you probably want to read more, only not here! I don’t even know what “my subject” is 😉

      PS be aware that your comment above looks very much like frequent spamming attempts. I have reasons to believe you are not a bot, so I thought it was a good idea to let you know.

    • dancinglemur says:

      Oh. My apologies. I haven’t been around long enough to know what to avoid, I guess…
      But I really did enjoy the article! You gave me several ideas for a future post of my own.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Nothing to apologise for!
      You’ll soon see it happening on your own blog: you’ll get short comments that say things like “Hey, great post and excellent thinking, I’ve bookmarked your site.”, with no specific comment on what you are actually saying in the post. The URL that people can associate with their comment would then send to some page that tries to sell stuff (useful in itself and as a search engine booster / SEO).
      I suppose the mechanism is that flattery makes us lower our defences and thus some of these eventually get published.

      Good luck for your blogging efforts!

  2. […] you are offended by what follows, that’s a good thing. I’m writing this post especially for […]

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