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What exactly does the wrong of "offending" someone (as in making a racist joke, say) consist in?

January 10, 2013

Response from Allen Stairs on January 11, 2013

It's an interesting question; a fully adequate answer would take at least an essay, and one that I'm not qualified to write. That said, a few preliminary distinctions may be helpful. First, whether someone feels offended and whether the feeling is appropriate are different questions. I recall a meeting where someone took offense at the speaker's use of "she" in place of the generic "he." In the context, it was clear that the speaker wasn't being offensive and that the audience member's feeling of offense was idiosyncratic to say the least. So while there's a sense in which the speaker "offended" the listener, there was no wrong.

For what follows, let's set aside the cases where someone feels offended without good reason and turn to a more central sort of case. Suppose someone calls out "Hey ____!" to get someone's attention, where the blank gets filled with a racial slur. The person on the receiving end may not feel offended, and may not take offense, but that might be, for instance, because he's gotten used to bad behavior on the speaker's part, or because she pities the speaker's blighted condition. In this case, wrong was done (people shouldn't use racial slurs), someone was wronged (the person on the receiving end shouldn't have been treated that way) and what was said was offensive, whether or not anyone was actually offended.

This makes clear that the wrong of offense is complicated, but there's still a connection between offending and being offended. Sticking with the case of offensive speech, the old saw that sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us isn't true. Words can pain, demean, humiliate, and worse; certain kinds of offensive speech and conduct can help promote and keep in currency attitudes and institutions (racism, sexism, etc.) that do real harm. If I act offensively and no one happens to be offended, that's no more to my credit than if I take a swing at someone and end up missing. I was doing the kind of thing that's likely to hurt people.

When offensive behavior produces its typical result, that's part of the harm and part of the wrong. But I'd suggest that the peculiar wrong of offending is in the first place in the offensiveness. It's a matter of acting or speaking in a way that's liable to be undeservedly hurtful or demeaning or to promote larger evils—even if, by luck, no palpable harm comes about.

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By way of a coda, there's another interesting aspect to the matter of giving offense. I may be offended by words or behavior that aren't directed at me—by seeing someone berate their spouse in public, for example. There are many such cases where it seems perfectly appropriate for us to be offended, and the behavior that offends us really is offensive. But illuminating what the "third-party" offense comes to is something that what's been said here doesn't address.



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