On resisting the lure of offense, a Stoic perspective

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To get offended is to concede that another has succeeded in hurting you

It is a generally agreed to observation, these days, that our culture makes people more prone to take offense at other people’s opinions or speech than at any time in recent memory. The Right deplores this state of affairs, talking about “snowflake” liberals. The Left, by contrast, defends not only the right of people belonging to certain historically oppressed classes to feel offended, but considers the new trend a necessary step forward.

In contrast to all the above, the Stoics were pretty clear about what they thought of the notion of taking offense:

So do I, a self professed liberal and a practicing Stoic, side with contemporary conservatives and deny the right of the oppressed to feel insulted? No, because Stoicism isn’t about telling other people what to do, it is about your own character and the behaviors that stem from it. However, this essay is aimed at those women, gays, lesbians, queer, trans, and currently or historically oppressed ethnic minorities who may wish to see things from a different perspective, and who think that the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has something to teach us that transcends the particular socio-political movement. This essay is not about telling you to behave one way or another, it is a suggestion to see things differently, put forth for your consideration.

To clarify our thinking, let us take a brief look at a recent article by Clifton Mark in Aeon magazine, entitled “What is offensive?” The author examines the concept of getting offended from three distinctive perspectives, finds two of the standard ones to be deficient, and articulates the third one as most reasonable. I will suggest that even though Mark’s suggestion is indeed reasonable within the framework he has set up, it too — like the other two — should be rejected by a practicing Stoic.

The first model considered by Mark is the one favored nowadays by people on the Right: offense-as-hurt. According to this model, to take offense means that someone considers another person’s words as hurtful to his feelings, bruising his ego, or generally creating discomfort. But to try to use these reasons to silence the offender amounts to a clear violation of free speech and, the argument goes, should therefore be resisted, regardless of how much one’s feelings are being hurt.

The second model is labeled by Mark offense-as-harm, and is the one standardly defended by the contemporary Left. According to this way of seeing things, offensive speech does not just hurt feelings, but causes real damage in the form of emotional distress and psychological harm. Some people in this camp even point to fMRI scans showing that one’s brain is physically affected by perceived insults, though this particular point is exceedingly weak: everything we do or say will correspond to neural correlates, because it is our brain that perceives and responds to everything. What would be surprising is if we didn’t find any neural correlate for a particular behavior or emotional state.

The third model is the one Mark calls offense-as-insult, and — rather weirdly — he takes it from the old European culture of dueling. He describes it this way:

In duelling cultures, the challenge was nothing more than a gentlemanly convention for taking offence. To offend meant to insult or to disrespect, not to hurt one’s feelings. And to take offence was to reply to an insult by demanding a show of respect. … The concept of honour is the key to understanding such quarrels. Honour was a kind of status, entitling those who possessed it to respectful treatment from others.

Mark does not explicitly say that he rejects the offense-as-hurt model, though I would like to point out that people on the Right seem to be just as snowflaky as people on the Left, judging from their own reactions to certain situations. For instance, they tend to take offense any time someone criticizes their country, or their leader, or their symbols, such as the national flag. The difference between Right and Left, insofar as this model is concerned, is not that one is more sensitive or wishes to stifle the other side’s speech. It’s that they are sensitive about different things, and have no qualms advocating for curbing the other side’s speech whenever they feel the situation requires it.

Regarding the offense-as-harm model, Mark seems to find some validity in it, but considers it incomplete because it does not capture all the dimensions of taking offense, specifically the honor angle that is at the roots of the offense-as-insult approach.

What the first two models have in common, according to Mark, is that they focus on the effects of the perceived insult, not on its content. The third model, then, becomes complementary because it does just that:

Offence-as-insult focuses instead on the content of the speech. To give a hypothetical example, when I am deciding whether to take offence to a colleague’s joke playing on my Chinese heritage, the key question is not ‘How do I feel?’ but ‘Was the joke racist?’ … As in honour societies, offence is justified by whether or not an act treats its target as less than equal.

Mark makes another interesting observation that would surprise people on both the Right and the Left who are involved in the ongoing controversy:

It is quite common to think that official equality should be enough to greatly mitigate, if not resolve, conflicts over offence. But the history of duelling shows that this gets the basic relation between social equality and offence wrong. Basic-status equality is not the solution to offence, it’s a condition of it.

At this point you may have instinctively leaned toward one of the three models discussed in the Aeon piece. Or you may have started out by unreflectively preferring a given model and then gradually changed your mind because of the different perspective offered by Mark. Either way, this is fine. But if you also happen to be someone interested in practicing Stoic philosophy, I would suggest that you should reject all three models, as interesting and insightful as they may be. Let’s briefly see why.

Offense-as-hurt: your feelings are going to be hurt by the offense only to the degree that you take the offense seriously, and quite independently of whether the uttered words were meant to be hurtful or not. Here the quote above from Epictetus is perfectly on target. And so is this one:

Someone is uttering words. Those words may strike you as insulting. This is your impression. However, upon reflection, there are two possibilities: (i) the person in question did not actually mean to insult you; or (ii) he did mean it. The first case may include a lot of so-called “micro-aggressions,” as when someone innocently asks you where you are from, as a conversation opener, and your inclination is to see this as an unwelcome probe into your ethnic origins. Slow down and consider that no offense may have been meant, in which case you could simply answer matter of factly (“I’m from New York, but my family is originally from Italy”), or, if the thing really bothers you, calmly and gently explain to your interlocutor that some people may take offense at that sort of question, so perhaps he may want to be more guarded in the future. In the second case, when the other really did mean to offend, remember that it is just vibrating air that is reaching your auditory system, and that you are certainly not in control of other people’s opinions. The guy is mistaken in very much the following way:

This is a profound view, and one that would be very helpful if adopted more widely. Clearly, when someone insults you on purpose he thinks he is in the right. If they are, then you should thank them and learn from the experience. But if they aren’t, the joke’s on them, since they are the ones uttering an absurdity, something along the lines of “women are inferior to men,” or “this is a white country only.”

It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it nonetheless, because I know what objection is forming in some readers’ minds: no, this is no license for condoning racism, sexism, or any other kind of bigotry and injustice. It is simply the pragmatic realization that some people will be racist, sexist, and so forth, and that we are not going to change their minds. The fight, then, needs to be carried out at the ballot box, in the classroom, and in the square of public opinion. Considering oneself offended by the words of a misguided soul helps no one, and hurts only ourselves.

Offense-as-harm: here the very same considerations just made above apply as well, with a twist. There is no harm is we realize that the offense is just hot air being set in motion by a fool. Rather, the proper response is pity toward the unfortunate soul whose reasoning abilities are so impaired, likely because of a terrible education and bigoted familial upbringing, neither of which where under that person’s control. Emotional and psychological harm, in other words, are a direct result of how we ourselves construct what is happening, it is not inherent in the offending utterance itself. This ought to be empowering, because we can (and should) refuse to be hurt or harmed by the offense, instead reacting with compassion toward the perpetrator or, if one is so inclined, with humor:

Offense-as-insult: of the three models, you will recall, this is the one preferred by Mark on the ground that it does not focus on the effects of the insult, but rather on the content of the speech. Mark suggests that we should be asking a different question: not ‘How do I feel?’ but ‘Was the joke racist?’

But from a Stoic perspective this is a distinction without a difference. Let us suppose that the joke was, in fact, racist. So what? This is yet another example of what Epictetus says above: to be a racist is to endorse an incorrect position (i.e., the notion that there are such things as human races, and that they can be ranked by objective standards of quality), not different from declaring a true conjunctive proposition to be false. It is a display of ignorance that should be embarrassing to the person uttering it, so that once again the proper response is humor or pity, but certainly not anger. After all:

Racists, misogynists and bigots are like blind or deaf people, and the proper response is to guide them to a better place, or at least make sure they don’t hurt themselves (and others) while ambulating in the dark. The rest of us can more profitably focus on pushing for more just legislation and on electing representatives who are not blind or deaf to the realities of the human condition.

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Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

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