In response to an earlier post, a friend of mine noted that sometimes “a necessary and true word bluntly spoken is condemned as uncivil because someone’s feelings were hurt.”

His comment raises important questions about how the civil person ought to view the prospect of offending others. Can we be civil—that is, can we seek to respect others’ intrinsic worth in the context of our disputes—while at the same time offending those persons, even wittingly? Or must civil people seek to avoid offensiveness, as part of their commitment to civility? To put the matter more generally, what ought to be our perspective on offending others?

It seems to me that our society offers two popular and conflicting answers to the above question. On the one hand, we find what I’ll call the political correctness view. This view asserts that we must avoid offensiveness at all costs—or, at the very least, that we must not offend people from historically marginalized groups. Offensiveness issues from narrow-mindedness or insensitivity or bigotry and thus must be rejected.

I once spoke with a college professor who suggested that he and other members of the administration have an institutional obligation to police against offensiveness in the classroom. He recommended confronting students who make offensive comments, either on the spot or after class. My discussion with this professor transformed a view that I had often seen represented in the media into a living reality.

Against this position, we find what I’ll call the hardnosed realist view. This view sees offensiveness as an unavoidable part of life in a pluralistic society and therefore claims that we had better learn to deal with it. Those who seek to expunge offensiveness from the public square, whether for themselves or others, are being overly sensitive. Such “buttercups” need to “suck it up.”

Doubtless, there are other positions on offensiveness in the public square, nor do proponents of either view live them out perfectly. We sometimes insist on avoiding offensiveness for those groups for which we have a special affinity, while not hesitating to offend those groups we don’t like. Similarly, we may favor hardnosed realism toward ideological opponents while balking when opponents direct such unfiltered comments at us or at our friends. In short, these are not perfect categories, but I think they approximate the main positions on offer. In the drama of our common life, these characters get the most lines.

Both the political correctness view and the hardnosed realist view grasp some aspect of the truth, yet neither is fully satisfactory. The political correctness view rightly seeks to protect the historically marginalized, yet it overlooks important details—about society, human psychology, even about the nature of truth claims—which make its basic position untenable. The hardnosed realist view, on the other hand, while seeking to avoid these errors, endorses a mode of discourse that renders persuasion all-but impossible and instead only deepens our divisions.

We need a third option—a moderate or “civil” perspective on the question of offending others, which avoids the above pitfalls while retaining their insights. In my next entry, I will offer one such option. Along the way, I will flesh out some of my above claims about the problems with the two, dominant positions.

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