Friday, October 07, 2005

Offensive Spirit

In the wake of this piece of abject lunacy [thank you DK...], reported and commented upon ad nauseam, one would be tempted to roll one's eyes, shrug one's shoulders and mumble "whatever" in response to this.

You will get no such behaviour from your doughty Pedant-General. We have come to expect similarly doughtiness from the EU-Serf. He hints at the right answer in this comment to the Drink-Soaked Trots posting.

But where lesser mortals merely have a glimpse of the truth, your infallible Pedant-General sees the whole: I shall take a lead from Deogolwulf's excellent general case answer to the "root cause" rubbish put about by the apologist morons who beset this and other free societies.

Here, then, is the general case solution to the giving and taking of offence.

Giving and Taking Offence. The Correct Approach

People who are easily offended should be told to piss off until they can become civilised, rational, sensible people who understand that offence has to be intended. It is the intention of the person allegedly giving 'offence' that counts NOT the attitude or chippiness of the "victim" who goes out looking to take offence.

P-G Prescription: Gratuitous and unjustified takers of offence badly need a custard pie in the face. This has two starkly obvious merits:
1. It might cause said taker of offence not to take himself so seriously and
2. It allows the rest of us to point at him and snigger.


Oh alright: I need to justify this:

Giving and Taking Offence. A bit more detail

It is actually offensive to take offence gratuitously: it transforms good faith (no offence intended) into bad faith (an attempt to give offence).

Consider the following scenarios:

The Canyon Sundown Showdown
[We are standing on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. (Bryce Canyon would work extremely well in this regard also, probably better but for the fact that the great unwashed have not heard of it.) The sun is setting and, as its lower edge appears to touch the horizon, the sky appears to be set on fire. The Canyon visibly changes colour to reflect it.

Two strangers stand, awestruck. They have not met and are ordinarily dressed (for the demands of the location - you won't find any bumbags or dusty sneakers in the Grace and Favour apartment, I can tell you).]

Stranger A [Filled, as he is and because of the natural beauty of the scene before him, with a general feeling of goodwill toward his fellow man and thus attempting to start a conversation]: What an amazing orange glow the sun gives off.

Stranger B [Who happens to be from Northern Ireland and of Catholic extraction and/or persuasion]: You Unionist b*st*rd, evil spawn of King William III! Are you trying to ruin my enjoyment of this scene, just like you trample down all the rights of my fellow men?

etc. etc. etc. Continued p94.

A: ???

The behaviour of 'B' is clearly out of order. This would be the case, even if 'A' knew that 'B' was Catholic and possibly even if 'A' knew that 'B's mother had been hacked into small pieces by those friendly neighbourhood representatives of the UFF or whoever. Why? Because the fact that the sunset is 'orange' is not loaded. It has no cultural significance. Sunsets would continue to be orange at the Grand Canyon, and possibly even in Limerick, even if the 6 counties were to come under the governance of Dublin.

Crucially, 'A' acted with goodwill and in good faith. 'B' chose to ignore this, assumed bad motive on the part of 'A' without clarifying that this was the case and attempted to portray him as an aggressor of some kind. As far as 'A' is concerned, an amicable gesture has been rudely rebuffed. 'A' has clearly been maligned here. Indeed, 'B' has deliberately caused offence.

But what of a flag? It cannot be said that the flag of any country or organisation has no symbolism or cultural context.

Let's try another example:
The Bacon Crisis
Stranger 'A' cowers inside a small bothy in the Scottish Highlands in the depths of winter. This bothy is the only evidence of human habitation for many miles around. A storm rages in the night outside. It is bitterly cold. Stranger 'B' staggers up to door. He is half starved and on the point of losing consciousness as a result of hypothermia. Stranger 'A' opens the door, helps him inside and sits him down in front of the fire.

Once gently and carefully warmed up [as we all know, many deaths from hypothermia are caused by warming the victim too quickly], it is clear that 'B' needs food.

However, 'B' just happens to be an orthodox Jew. To compound the problem, 'A' has been stuck in this bothy for some time and is running fearfully low on rations. He has only a single pack of streaky bacon left and there is no hope of replenishment for the next 3 days (or whatever).

'A' will survive this period without food. 'B' will not. They could just both survive if the food is shared. Oh, and there is a highly resilient independently powered web cam, hooked up to the internet broadcasting sound and video to the world - both know that their actions will be public knowledge.

So, given this scenario, and given that 'A' knows that 'B' ought not to eat the bacon, would it be offensive:
  1. For 'A' to offer 'B' any, or indeed ALL, of the bacon because he can see that 'B's need is greater?
  2. For 'A', mindful of 'B's abhorrence of bacon, to eat it himself and wring his hands whilst 'B' dies of starvation?
  3. For 'A' to refrain from eating the bacon to show solidarity (or whatever, in this case the guy must be a total fruit loop) with 'B'and wring his hands whilst 'B' inevitably dies of starvation?
  4. For 'A' to offer ALL the bacon and for 'B' to accuse 'A' of tempting him or otherwise acting in bad faith?
No need to send answers on a postcard for this little quiz. The answers are, I believe,
  1. No. 'A' is acting in the best interests of 'B'; namely to save his life. This is true whether or 'B' accepts the offer.
  2. Yes. This is true even though 'A's aim was NOT TO CAUSE offence. 'A' has allowed 'B' to die, which is a far greater offence against the person. 'A' is kidding himself if he thinks he is doing the right thing. Worse still, by refraining from offering, 'A' forces the dilemma onto the weaker party 'B': 'B' must now choose whether to ask for some bacon in order to save his own life which is a VERY different class of problem. 'A's behaviour is reprehensible.
  3. Well the answer is in the question: 'A' is clearly a nutcase. Either way, 'A' has allowed 'B' to die, so case 2 applies.
  4. Yes. 'A' acts in good faith and very obviously for the benefit of 'B'. 'B' is being monstrously ungrateful. One might even have a measure of sympathy if 'A'if he were to shove 'B' out of the door into the storm and tell him to take his chances with the weather.
So symbolism is not the key here: It is obviously offensive knowingly to offer a bacon sandwich to a rabbi, yet we have constructed an entirely plausible sequence of events where this 'obvious' symbolism counts for nothing. Indeed the deference to symbolism becomes a very real affront to human decency.

'A' ought not have to have the death of 'B' on his conscience for failure to offer. 'B', for his part, is under no obligation to accept. If his conscience dictates that he cannot take it up, that must be his choice and it would be frankly disgusting for him to project guilt onto others for that choice.

So we have now established that context and the spirit of the offer must be your guides. With this in mind, we can now examine the murky business of the English national flag.

We need, I think, to use another little parable.
The Grundies and the Grabbers
A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there lived two families, the Grundies and Grabbers. Each had a substantial castle and surrounding lands, so that each family was able to support its members and hangers-on without needing to encroach each upon the other.

The Grundies lived a blameless existence, in tune with nature, caring deeply for the farmhands and giving much to the community, yada yada yada. You get the gist. The Grabbers however, whose castle lay just across the valley from Grundie Castle, were lawless good-for-nothings of the first water. They staged raucous "house-party" weekends and invited similarly objectionable friends to stay. The days would be spent hunting and shooting and fishing. The nights were given over to debauchery, drunkeness and defilement.

Thus would affairs have continued, until one day, following a dreadful misunderstanding - whose precise nature is lost to folklore - the Grabbers felt that they had been wronged. The next party staged in Grabber Castle was turned on its head: the hunting was done by night. Under cover of darkness, fuelled by grog and loathing, the Grabbers crossed the valley and murdered the Grundies in their beds.

For generations, the feud continued but time did its healing job and over time, friendly relations were restored. Centuries passed and the dastardliness of the Grabbers lived on only as a story, a dark chapter in the history of the family. Indeed, they had mended their ways. For almost a hundred years, the incumbent at Grabber Hall was expected and known to be charitable, generous and welcoming.

(How close this is to the history of the P-G clan, I will leave others to speculate. I never mentioned anything about boiling up awkward local officials to make soup.)

So to the ante-penultimate generation and the marriage of a daughter of the Earl of Grundie to the eldest son of Grabber. Grand-Grabbers ensue, all living in or around Grabber Hall and in houses built by previous generations of Grabbers to bring us to the present day.

Then one day, the estate manager, a man whose forbears had been in the employ of the Grabbers for centuries, suddenly bursts into the great hall as the family sits down to supper. They are having a (civilised) party and the Earl of Grundie is present as a guest of honour. "I think there is something dreadfully wrong!" he stammers. "Many of you are descended from Grundies."

"Yes.... So what?" replies the great Grabber of Grabber.

"Don't you see?", he continues. "The Grabber crest is everywhere: it has been chiselled into the lintel above every front door on the estate. The crest of the man who murdered the Grundies in cold blood. We have to tear it down and replace it with something...
"not associated with our bloody past and one we can all identify with."

[end of parody]

The action of this, no doubt well-meaning, gentleman has precisely the opposite outcome of that intended:
  • It reminds the Grundies of long dead injustices;
  • It suggests that, despite centuries of peaceable relations, the Grundies should still be offended by the Grabber crest;
  • It would cause the Grabbers, fine and upstanding though they may have been for generations, to doubt themselves for no purpose;
  • It would cause every member of both families to question whether he or she is really a Grundie or a Grabber at heart; is one an offender or a victim? Is it possible to be both?
This is, in effect, what Chris Doyle is doing. He is inviting others to take offence at a symbol. As I have shown above, this is entirely self-contradictory, for three reasons:
  1. Offence cannot (or should not) be taken - only given.
  2. A symbol is offensive if and only if its use is intended by the user to be offensive, but his offer shows that he bears no ill will. Conversely, if he does bear a grudge, changing the symbol does not alter that fact.
  3. Anyone taking up your genuinely offered invitation to be offended is reacting negatively to a peaceable offer. This is, in itself, offensive.
That the filth of the BNP and others may have subverted the flag may be. Changing the flag for the rest of the country will not change their attitudes.

It is dangerous nonsense. It is madness.


Devil's Kitchen said...

In the wake of this peice of abject lunacy

Hem hem. Dare I point out that generally "i" comes before "e" except after "c"?

I'm sorry, I just couldn't resist...


Anonymous said...

Good rant ;)

Devil's Kitchen said...

Offence cannot (or should not) be taken - only given.

This is at the heart of why the government's incitement to religious hatred bill is so egregious in its iniquity.

Good post, P-G, and spot on.


Akaky said...

It boggles the imagination that I missed the e before i in piece. I will spend the rest of the day looking over my shoulder for Sister Mary Agnes and waiting for the inevitable crack across the back of my head for missing such grammatical error.

Akaky said...

It boggles the imagination that I missed the e before i in piece. I will spend the rest of the day looking over my shoulder for Sister Mary Agnes and waiting for the inevitable crack across the back of my head for missing such a gross grammatical error....WHACK!!! Serves you right, young man, first for missing the misspelling of piece and secondly for posting something without proofreading it first... WHACK!!!

Anonymous said...

I can't deny there is some merit in your argument, but just as the "taker" should consider and respect the intentions of the giver, why should the giver not show the same regard for the feelings of the taker, whatever the extent of their rationality?

I think it has to be a two-way street, and your argument looks a little one-sided to me :-)

The Pedant-General said...


"whatever the extent of their rationality"

I disagree: the giver should take account of the feelings of the taker ONLY if he is being rational.

Why should sensible rational people have to bend over backwards to avoid offending people who are irrational? Quite apart from the fact that this would lead very quickly to a "might is right" closing down of debate, it would be impossible for the giver to judge his own behaviour: how can you predict what an irrational person is going to do?


Anonymous said...

OK, so who is going to be the arbiter of rationality? Presumably you feel qualified to judge. But there may be disagreements as to who is rational and who is not. I personally believe there's a sense in which all people are rational, when you take into account the psychological laws of cause and effect, and rule out any organic cause of mental illness. Then again, there's another argument which suggests that human beings are all fundamentally *irrational*. There's certainly plenty of evidence (empirical and anecdotal) to support this view.

It's also rather dangerous to take the rationality argument too far. That would give you carte blanche to call anyone you disagreed with irrational, and write off their feelings and their point of view without further ado.

I would argue that where there's a misunderstanding, both parties are responsible, except for cases where one or both parties could not reasonably be expected to have access to relevant information.

Do you not allow for the possibility that offence can be given unintentionally? To some extent, intention is really irrelevant to the end result. If you crash your car by accident, you'll still end up with the same injuries as if you had the same car crash deliberately. Our intentions are not always fulfilled by our actions. Perhaps you would disagree. In which case there is no such thing as an accident of any kind.

I certainly don't want lunatics running the asylum any more than you do, but I still say your argument is a little one-sided for my liking.

Anonymous said...

"It is actually offensive to take offence gratuitously" is it offensive to take offence at someone taking offence gratuitously then?

Presumably you would say no, because the latter is gratuitous and the other is not (in YOUR opinion). If your defnintion of gratuitousness is based on the intentionality of the giver, then you can see the problem with this.
What you consider gratuitous may not considered so by everyone.

You can't have your cake and eat it too. If you accept the existance of things/actions which are inherently offensIVE (and I guess by the fact that you use the word, then you must do), then you have to accept the posibility that offence *can* be taken as well as given. If something which is offensive does not necessarily entail the taking of offense, then it is difficult to see in what sense it is "offensive".

If I do or say something which unbeknownst to me falls into your "offensive" category, but not mine, then are you right or wrong to take offence? And if you do take offence, then if I consider that gratuitous, I might legitimately take offence back, by your argument. It's really not very coherent, is it?

Anonymous said...

Also, it's perfectly possible to try and fail to offend someone, just as it is possible to not try and still succeed.

I have seen people try and fail to offend me. The attempt itself can be offensive, but its content is not. At least, not to me.

The Pedant-General said...


"Do you not allow for the possibility that offence can be given unintentionally? "

Yes, I do. In fact, the whole of case 1 deals with this exact point. Go and read the post again. In this case, no offense has been "given" - there was none intended. There is therefore nothing to "take". For the taker to assume offensiveness where none is intended projects bad faith onto the giver.

"I would argue that where there's a misunderstanding, both parties are responsible, except for cases where one or both parties could not reasonably be expected to have access to relevant information."

Which is why it is important to clarify intention and to share the relevant information in a rational manner. As I explain very very clearly in Case 1 above. Have you actually read it? It rather appears that you haven't.

"It's also rather dangerous to take the rationality argument too far. That would give you carte blanche to call anyone you disagreed with irrational, and write off their feelings and their point of view without further ado."

Disagreements need not only arise from irrationality: they can be down to different emphasis placed on different facts. This sort of disagreement is unlikely to give rise to unintended offensiveness.

Writing off their feelings is only an issue should I choose to be offensive to someone. Which, assuming we are all basically rational, I have no need to do. If I have no intention to insult, but someone takes offence and is then not willing to listen to my reasoning or that I had no intention to insult them, then yes, I would be justified in ignoring his feelings.

I know that I bear him no ill will: if he chooses to go and nurse a grudge, that is his problem, not mine.