In my previous entry, I raised the question of the relationship between civility and offensiveness. Can civil people—those who are committed to respecting their neighbors in the context of a dispute—wittingly offend those same neighbors? Or must they do all they can to avoid giving offense?
I sketched two popular answers to this question about the acceptability of offensiveness. The first, which I called the politically correct view, says that we must avoid offending others at all costs, especially those from historically marginalized groups. The second, which I called the hardnosed realist view, says that offensiveness is an inescapable part of life in a pluralistic society and therefore that we had better learn to deal with it. I then suggested that the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle.
In this entry, I’m going to propose what I see as the solution to the above question. The solution turns on a crucial distinction between two types of offensiveness—what I’m calling ill-meaning and well-meaning offensiveness, respectively. Ill-meaning offensiveness occurs when we speak or act with the intention of wounding another person (often, though not always, our conversation partner). Such offenses can be brazen or subtle, crude or sophisticated. What matters is not the style but the senders’ intentions: our express desire to cause harm.
By contrast, well-meaning offensiveness issues from good intentions. Those who commit such offenses do not wish to harm others; that they do so is, in some way, an accident. Such people aim to speak or act in accordance with what they believe is good or true or beautiful—it just so happens that those beliefs conflict with their neighbors’ in some way that creates offense. Perhaps they strike a nerve in those neighbors’ pasts, or they grate against one or more of their core assumptions. From the standpoint of the offended party, a well-meaning offense may sting just as much as its ill-meaning counterpart. What distinguishes this form of offense is not the response it generates but the fact that it originates from the sender’s pure motives.
Having distinguished these two forms of offensiveness, I am now in a position to state my thesis—namely, that civil people must avoid ill-meaning offense, but they cannot be expected to avoid all cases of well-meaning offense.
The first part of this thesis follows naturally from my conception of civility. According to my view, civility is the virtue we show toward others when we dispute their ideas in ways that respect those persons’ intrinsic worth. In practice if not in principle, civil people honor their neighbors’ worth. Yet, surely, it would be inconsistent with that worth to intentionally wound another person through ill-meaning offense. Therefore, civil people must avoid such offense. If and when they do commit one, they apologize. This answer shares at least some connection with the politically correct view above, insofar as those who hold that view insist on the intrinsic worth of all people and therefore demand behavior consistent with that worth.
Yet what about the second half of my thesis—the idea that civil people cannot be expected to avoid well-meaning offense? What makes this latter type of offense unavoidable? Let me suggest three things.
First, just as the politically correct view contains a kernel of truth, so too does the hardnosed realist view: we do in fact live in a pluralistic society, which, by its nature, makes offense all-but inevitable. To say that we are “pluralistic” is not simply to say that we are “diverse.” One hears all sorts of talk about, and celebrations of, diversity today, yet the diversity in view rarely extends to viewpoints, to ways of seeing the world. A panel of scholars discussed this fact in a May gathering at the American Enterprise Institute, noting what they perceive as a lack of viewpoint diversity in American higher education—the very institutions that often lead the charge in promoting diversity. Pluralism, in contrast, applies the adjective “diverse” to beliefs or viewpoints, specifically. It denotes a society whose members differ in their fundamental commitments, a difference which leads to widely different values and practices.
This brings me to my second point. Often, our differences of belief present us with incompatible positions. One could conceive of a pluralistic society in which members disagreed about, for example, their favorite color. I like green, you orange, you purple, and so forth. Reasonable members of this society will quickly realize that our differences of preference represent equally valid positions: the fact that I prefer green is consistent with your preference for some other color.
Not so with many of the things that actually divide us in today’s societies. Take religious positions, for example. Orthodox Christians claim that Jesus is God incarnate; Muslims, while they revere Jesus as a prophet, emphatically deny his divine nature; and Atheists reject both positions, since, on their view, God does not exist. Unlike the color example, these differences are not compatible. There must, of necessity, be a truth about the matter under dispute, a truth captured in the Christian, Muslim, Atheist or some other position.
And this brings me to the last of my three points. It is not just that we believe different things or even that those differences are often incompatible: it is the fact that we care about our particular beliefs that makes offense inevitable. I believe that the pine tree I currently see outside my window belongs to the coniferous or evergreen family of trees. Were you to contradict me on this point, calling it deciduous, I would think you were wrong, but your position wouldn’t offend me. Yet that is because the question of tree classification doesn’t matter to how I order my life, to my sense of who I am and of how I take the world to be on a fundamental level. It doesn’t affect my deepest convictions about the true, the good or the beautiful.
Contrast this with the point about Jesus’ divine nature, noted above. Since our belief about this question carries profound implications for a host of issues—indeed, for an entire way of life—a difference here has great potential to cause offense. Recall the recent dispute between Senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, regarding the latter’s fitness for duty as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. In a senate hearing that caught national attention, Sanders opposed Vought’s fitness for duty because he objected to a theological position Vought had espoused in a blog post. “Objected” does not quite capture it; the senator seemed indignant. Vought’s position offended against some of his strongly held convictions about the nature of the world’s religions and of fitness for public service.
In short, because our society consists of people with differences of belief about fundamental issues, because these differences are sometimes incompatible (i.e., they cannot both be true), and because we care about the questions at issue, we cannot expect the civil person—or anyone, for that matter—to avoid all cases of well-meaning offense. Should Sanders, for example, have insisted that Vought renounce his claim about the theological position at issue, on the grounds that it offends Muslims and others, that request would itself be offensive to Vought and others who share his views, and who would feel like they were being asked to renounce a core conviction. Sanders would simply have shifted the offense from one group of people to another, not uprooted it altogether.
One final point, before I close. You may have notice that I qualified the second part of my thesis above, when saying that civil people “cannot be expected to avoid all cases of well-meaning offense.” This raises the question whether there are cases where we can be expected to avoid well-meaning offense. Suppose (1) your motives are pure, but (2) you know something about your conversation partner that makes it likely that she will be offended by what you say or do. How should you proceed in such cases? Can you still call this a case of well-meaning offense, or does your knowledge implicate you in the pain that follows?
No, it does not implicate you. In other words, yes, you can proceed—however, three caveats are in order. First, it can be genuinely hard to predict whether someone might be offended by your actions. The Sanders/Vought controversy provides a case in point. In the days following the incident, Ismail Royer, from the DC-based Center for Islam and Religious freedom, defended Vought from Sander’s criticism. Although Royer is a Muslim, and although Vought’s blog post concerned what he sees as Muslims’ “deficient theology”, Royer writes:
“[Vought’s] statements were not crude bigotry, but a passionate defense of his creed entirely within the realm of discourse of reasonable, civilized men and women… Taken out of context, and to the sensitive ear of those unaccustomed to religious discourse about absolute truths, Vought’s statement that Muslims are “condemned” sounds harsh. As noted, however, it was part of a broader theological argument. Nowhere does he conclude that Muslims should be hated or treated differently from non-Muslims.”
Royer’s response demonstrates the difficulty of making judgments abut the likelihood of offending others based on mere demographic information.
Second, just because our intentions are pure does not mean we should abandon good judgment. There may be a time and place where we need to speak or act in ways we think likely to offend others, but that doesn’t mean we should do so indiscriminately. By wisely navigating social settings in search of a more-opportune time, we stand a chance of minimizing undue offense.
Yet, third, when the situation demands it, as when some important matter of truth or goodness is at stake, we need to speak or act according to our conscience. Where possible, however, we should do so in a way that demonstrates our good will. It was the knowledge of this good will, despite deep differences of belief, that enabled Royer to defend Vought as he did. To the extent we can demonstrate our own good will by our words and actions—by how we speak and not just what we say—we may be able to minimize offense and perhaps even to make an unlikely ally.