July 20, 2008

The Nature of Offense

In the corners of the blogosphere where I hang out, offense and the giving and taking thereof have been the topic du jour for quite a few jours now. There's Crackergate, the "sheet head" letter, the question of what words may be used to point out that someone else is calling names and, as I start writing this, questions being raised about protecting students from being offended by class material. A lot of people are being offended these days.

But what does it mean to be offended? What does it mean to be an offender? Who gets to be either and why? Is offense ever a good thing? What follows here is my attempt to synthesize my observations and conversations on the topic over the last couple of weeks.

Offense is, obviously, a social transaction. A person in social isolation can neither offend nor be offended (without resorting to anthropomorphism). One person can intend to offend or not. Another can accept offense, reject offense or claim offense.

More than that, offense is a power transaction. Historically in Western civilization, offense has been the purview first of gods, then of kings as the representatives of gods, then of kings in their own right, then of those elites who were recognized to have honor that could be offended. Beyond that, the "right" to be offended is still in flux. Being offended is a privilege. Offense is made against and measured by the (local) status quo, and those outside the status quo are not permitted to take or claim offense. Instead, they are perceived to be merely angry.

Limiting the right to take offense is important and contentious because the difference between anger and offense is obligation. Offense implies an obligation of the offender to the offended to "fix" the offense. Again historically, this obligation is paid in blood--on the altar, battlefield, chopping block or dueling ground. These days, when blood is a less acceptable form of payment, fixing the offense is frequently impossible, leaving the offender permanently in a position of obligation.

So being offended confers a certain benefit, if the offended can have their claim recognized. Why would one offend? The obvious reason is that the offense is unintentional. The offender may not know their audience well enough to gauge their expectations. The offended may not know the offender well enough to interpret their behavior. Or either may enter a social space with a different status quo than they are used to.

Offending deliberately can, counter-intuitively, have advantages. It can declare one to be outside the status quo or declare affiliation with a group with a differing status quo. It can provide an opportunity to declare that the offended does not have the status required to claim offense. It can easily provoke an opponent to anger, since the status quo is rarely observed or dissected objectively. And it can, in the right hands, provide a "teachable moment" about the nature of the status quo.

So those are the wherefores of offense as I've been pondering them lately. This is a bit more dense than what I usually post here, so it won't surprise me if no one feels up to commenting after reading it. But if you do have a comment or question, please share. The issue is hardly likely to go away, and now that I've noticed it properly, I'll keep thinking about it. I'd love the opportunity to refine my thinking some more.


Glendon Mellow said...

Oh, I'll comment all right. I'm offended you'd think someone wouldn't.



Glendon Mellow said...

It seems to me that offense is something often linked to a lack of empathy.

People feeling offended often expect and demand others share in their feelings, and are aghast when others do not see things the way they do. They often assume the offender is doing it on purpose and they may not be.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Heh. Glendon, you sure you're not just looking to see a debt paid in blood?

Interesting thoughts on empathy. I was focusing on the social aspects enough that I think I missed some of the individual psychology angles. That could interact with the protection of the status quo in some really fascinating ways, too. Cool.


Anonymous said...

Nice summary. It would be interesting to contrast western concepts of offense with non western ones to see if the history, to which you allude, has had an effect.

You put a lot of weight in the area of intentionality, which I think is important. There have been instances where I've been accused of being offensive, to which I replied that the person making the accusation has misunderstod me, to which the reply was that my intention ... what I meant to say ... was unimportant. It was up to me to not be misunderstood.

This presents two problems. One is that it is impossible to guarantee being understood. Simply not possible. The other is that if offense is 'real' even if not intended, then nefarious individuals can claim the act of offense any time they wish against those with whom they have some beef. As you may guess, that was actually the case in those instances.

The nature of being offended needs to be examined more. Being offended is not a sterile automatic reaction. It is, rather, an act with its own apects of intentionality. I recently (surprise!) said something on my site that drew a question from someone who might or might not have been offended ... the commenter brought up the idea that my comment was offensive. I thought about it and asked for more detail ... what do you mean? I asked. I wanted more. I am wary and weary of responding to vague questions.

The fact that I had asked for more was considered by a third party to have been offensive! With some people, you can't win. But I digress.

My point is that the nature of offense is one thing, but the nature of being offended is not a passive (but it might be passive aggressive) thing but rather a very active thing. There are people waiting around to be offended. They have nothing better to do. I find that offensive.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Uh, Greg, I don't think you can both object to people taking offense and take offense in the same comment. Well, I mean, you can, but no one's going to take it seriously.

One of the things I was thinking about as I wrote this is whether offense is a useful concept in a more diverse, egalitarian society. I'm not sure it is. I'm leaning toward the idea that it's a combination of appeal to authority and a failure to own one's emotions, since I have no objection to someone saying they're angry. I'm kind of hoping someone will come along to argue the other side so I can clarify my thinking on the idea.

One of the interesting things about the Helix rejection letter response is how little the idea of offense came up in the discussion. The general tone was much more along the lines of, "This is not behavior I want in my community," and I think it was more effective as condemnation than, say, "PZ is always being offensive. He's making atheists look bad." I'm not sure how much of that is due to the fact that SF&F fandom is very self-aware of its status as a community, though.

I'd love to look at some non-western information on the concept, but I have no idea where to start. Finding information on the western ideas of offense was difficult enough. There's a lot of giving and taking out there and not much analysis.

Greg Laden said...

Uh, Greg, I don't think you can both object to people taking offense and take offense in the same comment.

How offensive.

But seriously ... the first place people usually go for non-western investigation is to the languages. Is there a word for it? Or a word that works in translation but does not mean the same thing (then things get interesting).

This also causes the investigator to reconsider the original definition. What do we mean by "offense" in our own society may be more complex than previously thought.

Is 'being offended' an affective state or is it a cultural concept built on anger when the anger comes as a reaction to a particular subset of events. What are those events and how are they defined culturally, how do you know they are happening?

Stephanie Zvan said...

The problem with language studies in this case is the same problem I had with figuring out what's already been studied in the area. "Offense" is also the word we use for law-breaking and for pressing a conflict, and the meanings are very closely intertwined in English. That helped track down some of the historical underpinnings for the concept, but it makes any kind of search a royal pain. It seems that we spend much more time studying law-breaking and war than social interaction. I'm getting closer in finding search terms that differentiate the results I want, though.

The multiple meanings also make interpreting the results of a search more difficult, since unless the specific topic is offense as a social phenomenon, most people aren't being careful about which meaning they're using.

As you can probably tell, I'm sure that someone has done this kind of scholarship, and I'm hoping to find some of it rather than reinventing it. Not that I won't probably dig into my translation dictionaries when I get home, even though they are all western languages. Thanks for the idea.

By the way, I challenged a couple of people to find examples of being offended that didn't also involve being angry (or irritated, but I think the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative). Now, my sample size was small, but they weren't able to do it, which makes me lean toward the idea that anger is the affective portion of offense and that the rest is social--the intentionality you brought up.

Anonymous said...

A search will provide better results if you throw in what one is being offended about. "offensive" and "sexism" or "offensive" and "racism" in a google scholar box will get you right away to a large number of interesting academic sources.

Unfortunately most of these sources (or at least those that I'm familiar with) do not address YOUR question. They start off with a presumption or even definition of the offensive behavior or the nature of the offense, but do not explicitly explore the reaction of the offended.

One problem is that you are asking a fairly politically incorrect question. How dare you.

Stephanie Zvan said...

How dare I? Let's see, what do I have to lose by it except my curiosity?

And really, I'd think that someone genuinely interested in the promotion of pro-social behavior would also have an interest in figuring out whether and why taking offense might not be the most effective choice. Wouldn't they?

Stephanie Zvan said...

Interesting. Most of the people who are asking questions similar to the ones I am are in the legal profession, dealing with determining what's obscene. Lots of people are asking what is offensive to different groups, but they start with the assumption of offense.

And looking at German, French and Russian dictionaries, we add connotations of assault, shock and insult to offense. At least with assault, we start to move into talking about identity. I'm not sure shock or insult add much meaning.

Anonymous said...

You have to ask... what do the Efe Pygmies think of this. Or the Yamomamo. Or the Nuer. Or Maasai.

Then we're talkin' cross cultural.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I am asking. I'm just not in a position to get many answers immediately, unless you have some ideas you'd like to share. This is way outside my field, so I'm starting with the low-hanging fruit and making sure the curiosity doesn't wear off or out before I really start digging.

Anonymous said...

I have had many many conversations with people in very different cultures sometimes in their own langauge, usually in a well understood common third language. So I can sit here and tap my memory for things that would lead me to predict what might be said if I asked a certain set of questions, or to remember observations that test some idea about "offense" ...

But that is very dangerous territory and I don't easily believe or accept what people (anthropologists, travelers, linguists) come up with when using that method.

I can tell you that the various cultures of Central Africa (the 's' at the end of 'culture' is because of different linguistic groups ... the distinction between 'cultures' is not so simple) with which I'm familiar seem to have acceptance of diversity in how things are done as a major hallmark. This does not mean that people will not complain. There is a lot of talk about this or that person with this or that behavior. These people/behaviors are dealt with through ridicule, not anger. But a persistent non-physically dangerous 'offensive' behavior is ultimately going to become boring. And humor is key.

That is all I feel comfortable saying right now.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I get the caution. It's sometimes useful, though, to have a nice declarative statement out there for people to argue with and refine--as long as you can get people to understand that's why it's there, so they're not treating preliminary thoughts as gospel.

Thanks for stretching that far.

Jen said...

Interestingly, the word in the New Testament that is often translated as "offense" or "offended" comes from the Greek word "Scandalon".
It means it's a trap. (Intentional or unintentional, we need to sidestep that trap!)


Transliterated Word

Skandalon 7:339,1036
Phonetic Spelling Parts of Speech
Noun Neuter

1. the movable stick or trigger of a trap, a trap stick
a. a trap, snare
b. any impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall, (a stumbling block, occasion of stumbling)
2. any person or thing by which one is (entrapped) drawn into error or sin

King James Word Usage - Total: 15
offence 9, stumbling block 3, occasion of stumbling 1, occasion to fall 1, thing that offends 1
(Taken from:
http://bible.crosswalk.com/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=4625 )&version=kjv

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, Jen. I'll have to do some digging into that one. The potential implications are certainly interesting.

Jen said...

I thought so. I'd be interested to 'hear' your train of thought. Also, at one point you said, "This also causes the investigator to reconsider the original definition. What we mean by 'offense' in our own society may be more complex than previously thought." I know a college-age lady- her mother and father were both living & together,never separated. At a gathering of some sort, a man approached the mother and paid her compliments, leading up to suggesting an affair with her. The mother told her daughter, & said she declined, but she was flattered. But the daughter felt it an insult and was offended. She felt her mother's respected name had been demeaned, not flattered. Without psycho-analyzing either of them, would the word "insult" define "offense" or would it, rather, LEAD to it? By the way - my own thought- I don't think that whether the offender is intentional is nearly as important as the fact that taking or rejecting that offense IS intentional. It is shaking off the offense, deliberatly. Sometimes it takes more than one effort. I have noticed, for myself, that there are two places where offense always comes. The first place is the sensibilities or sensitivities. The insult comes, and they will. They blindside us. Real or imagined - understood or misunderstood, it's real to us.We only have a microsecond to decide if we're going to take possession of it. We can either reject it in that microsecond or we can "swallow" it & then it will take much longer, & be much harder to "shake off", b/c now we have to defend it. After we "swallow" it, it will talk to us even more, and increase in size like the Hulk. I find I can deal with a problem with more alacrity if I kick out the offense-part as soon as it hits. But that doesn't mean I stick my head in the sand & not address some underlying issue. I just have to figure out whose issue it is.... You're right. It's a social thing.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Jen, I hate to say it, but just about every coherent thought I have on the subject is included in the original post here. Right now, I'm back in take-it-all-in mode, where I don't even try to figure out what it means. I promise, though: once I come up with anything more about the subject, I'll share. But I do really appreciate the input.

Oh, and the person talking about cross-cultural understanding is Greg. The phrase "in Western culture" is in my post, in part, because I knew he'd kick my butt if it wasn't. As it is, he's still pushing me to run it off to get to the heart of the subject.