Thursday, June 14, 2012

The right to be "offended"

If person A walked up to person B and said "Hello. It's a nice day isn't it?", and person B responded by saying "Your statement offends me", how would you respond? Most reasonable people would probably respond by saying, perhaps in slightly more diplomatic terms, "f@ck off, you have no right to claim that statement 'offended' you.". After all, it was not meant to be an attack on person B, requiring a defense, and we cannot simply take person B's word that "offensive" means anything B arbitrarily declares it to mean. In other words, there is some expectation on the part of person B to make a reasonable argument demonstrating why a particular statement constitutes an attack or "offense". We will certainly listen to that person's argument, and evaluate whether it is persuasive, but we cannot, contrary to the beliefs in some quarters, automatically says that something is offensive, just because someone else asserts it to be so. Yes, that person may have a feeling, and perhaps, more accurately, the person can claim, "I feel offended by X". But there is a difference between feeling that something is the case and actually showing that ones feeling is true. Yes, you may feel a certain way, but feelings can be wrong. Nobody is saying that you are wrong that you feel it, but it is possible to feel that something is true, which is actually false. I realize that is a very long prologue to introducing my point. However, it is likely necessary, because every one of those objections comes up in the discussion that follows, and therefore it is necessary to dispense with those ahead of time, or the conversation bogs down and becomes impossible to continue. Now then, imagine that, instead of the person saying, "Hello. It's a nice day, isn't it?" person A instead said, "Hello. I'm not convinced that God exists". I know a number of people who would hear this alternate statement and claim it was "offensive". Fortunately, we have just established, for every reason listed above, that such a person is not entitled to make this claim. To begin with, the statement is not clearly an attack or "offense" that requires a defense to it. It is an opinion, to be sure, as is "It's a nice day", and perhaps it seems to come out of nowhere, but that is certainly not sufficient to make it offensive. At the very least an argument still needs to be made that this constitutes an attack on the other person, or that it is an unreasonable topic to express publicly. After all, religious people often express the opposite sentiment, "I am absolutely convinced that God exists", and it is seldom even proposed that this is "offensive". Perhaps some people may feel put on the spot, or feel that they must express the opposite point of view immediately. Perhaps some people even resent that the other person has created a situation where such reactions may arise. But that would be true of many other topics, and that doesn't automatically make the expression of any potentially controversial view to be "offensive". Now, perhaps an argument could be put forth which would establish that this particular statement is, in fact, offensive. But, as it stands, in the absence of an argument being advanced, our response to that statement as well should be, "f@ck off, you don't have the right be offended by that statement".

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