Provisionality, Offense, and Conviction

I was just reading a short post by Tristan D. Vick about the difference between beliefs and assumptions, and it got me thinking about conviction and offense.

Last week, Ginny and I were talking about offense.  I’m not easily offended, and we were talking about why that is.  Part of the reason, I concluded, is that I don’t have many things I find to be sacred; I don’t have ideas which are beyond criticism, unavailable for investigation, or held with great conviction.  I am bereft of sacred cows to tip over, or something.

My beliefs, accepted facts, and interpretations—in short my worldview—is tentative and provisional, just as Tristan says about his beliefs.  Thus, it’s hard to find ways to offend me because it would imply that some harm is being done to me to challenge or question something I believe.  Since I have already questioned my beliefs (ideally, anyway) on my own, someone else challenging them is redundant and not harmful.  Thus and form of poking fun, mocking, or calling my ideas stupid or silly in itself cannot offend me.  I can be annoyed by poor attempts at criticism, but I cannot be offended by things which are not held with conviction.

So when I see people in the streets of Benghazi, Egypt, or elsewhere protesting the insult to their religion, I have trouble sympathizing with the offense they take.  I can’t sympathize with having a sacred belief which cannot be mocked, questioned, or even illustrated.  I find the idea that offense is taken by such mild acts as making a shitty video, drawing a picture of some guy who is believed to be a prophet, or simply saying that a set of beliefs is silly or unjustified as, well, offensive.

That is, if there is anything sacred to me, it is the freedom of expression, thought, and therefore of criticism.  My ideal that ideas are subject to analysis and discussion is an idea which I don’t think I could be convinced out of.  I am convicted to the idea of freedom of expression, and so the only way to offend me would be to protest such freedoms based on an idea or set of ideas.

And for someone to point of an inconsistency here; to say that I should hold the ideal of freedom of expression provisionally, seems to commit the same error as those who try to criticize what is sometimes called scientism, but which I think is better thought of as consistency in application of skepticism.  That is, there must be some ground upon which we found other ideas and conclusions.  For example, if we don’t accept that our senses are capable of giving us reliable (although not infallible) information, we cannot claim certainty about anything.  If we don’t have some methodological basis for testing ideas (such as skepticism/empiricism), then we cannot test the veracity of hypotheses with any reliability.  If we do not allow free expression free reign to all subjects, then we have no real (legal) freedom to believe what we want, because it becomes to easy to allow bias to inform which ideas are given privilege.

But most importantly, the only means to question the idea of free expression is with free expression.  It is a self-founding idea, or a meta-value.

One of my favorite shirts

Finding offense in criticism, whether of ideas you hold or which are held by others, is a sign of placing value on the wrong thing.  There is no good reason to accommodate sets of ideas over the ability to question those ideas.  The meta-value of our world, our species, and of all sentient beings should be the freedom of expression of all ideas.  Privileging a set of ideas, even if those ideas are right, is absurd.  True ideas will survive the light of criticism, and do not need sanctions to survive.  The truth, as Kosh once said, points to itself.

I have no fear of my ideas being questioned, mocked, etc.  If they are good ideas, they will survive.  If they are bad ideas, they will be replaced by argumentation whether in the form of polite discussion or mockery.  The question I have for people who are easily offended, for their own sake or the sake of others, is where your values are?  You can be sympathetic with the hurt feelings people have about having their ideas mocked, but at the end of the day if their ideas cannot survive that mockery, or even polite questioning, then perhaps that sympathy needs to be understood to be about their feelings, not their ideas.

There is a point when we have to take responsibility for our ideas, rather than coddle them.  Ideas are not people, and they cannot be injured.  Ideas are either good (justified) or not (unjustified).  And if you are hurt because your ideas are mocked, then you are either protecting an unjustified idea or one that does not need protection.

Just like gods (if they are to exist), ideas cannot be harmed by our criticism,  mockery, or polite disagreement.  There is no reason to protect such ideas or beings, except to protect the fact that they are bad ideas and free expression might expose such a weakness.

Oh!  That explains it now, doesn’t it?


Taking Offense

I have spent a lot of time over the last two or three decades thinking about things such as emotion.  I am, I think, more aware of how emotion works on the mind, behavior, and beliefs than most.  I have much that I could still learn, but I feel like I have some understanding (dare I say ‘wisdom’?) worth paying attention to on the subject.

In the times when I have been most offended, defensive, and have pulled (or ran) away from something I did not like or want to hear, I have found that all that resulted was an overall loss.  The times when my inability, unwillingness, and fear of facing a challenge and trying to find out why I was offended was never a victory.

There are certainly times when an offending action leaves you with the wise course of simply walking away.  There are times when offense has nothing to teach us.  But there are other times when offense can be a great teacher, and we need to practice in order to tell the difference between the two.  And it is quite easy to be wrong, so I tend to lean towards introspection in all cases of offense, disagreement, or even dislike of another idea or person.

If you are offended, even if you must walk away (if only temporarily), make sure to at least reflect on it.  Be sure that the cause of the offense is not something rubbing against a fear, insecurity, or where you may simply be wrong.

In short, running or walking away from offense can be a way to hide from your potential to learn about yourself.  Others, when they offend you, may have something to offer you.  Be not deceived by offense; for it can often be a gateway to self-knowledge.

All Apologies

Considering recent discussions about apologies, I think it is fair to ask what apologies are all about.  The word itself comes from the Greek apologia, which means a justification, defense, or argument. Obviously, the term has transformed a fair bit, and an apology is now defined as “An acknowledgment expressing regret or asking pardon for a fault or offense.”

If you look at some ways to say “I’m sorry” in various languages it is clear that the concept of an apology is more basic than a mere regret or asking for pardon.  For example, the Spanish ‘lo siento,’ while translated as “I’m sorry,” means something more like ‘I feel it.’  Thus, I would argue that the basic idea of an apology is sympathy, and can specifically lead to an attempt at atonement due to that sympathy.

Ok, so is it possible to have sympathy for some offense given, especially if it was not intended, and not feel culpability? In other words, can we sympathize with some offense without having the responsibility to make amends, atone, etc?

Alex does not seem to think so:

Glickman also suggests that if we hurt someone, regardless of our intent, we should be willing to “apologize and make amends,” and I think this is good advice as well.

OK, so we should be willing to do so, perhaps, but I don’t think we have any moral or ethical responsibility to do so, necessarily.  Not all offenses require amends.  Sometimes offense is purely the responsibility of the offended.  To explain why I think so, let’s get back to Alex’s post, especially to something else that Alex quoted of Charlie Glickman:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

When I read this, my pet-peeve alert went off and I had to control my urge to throw my phone (on which I was reading the post) across the room.  Let’s track what’s wrong with this series above with my response to reading it as an example.

  1. I read Alex’s post, getting as far as this feeling like he was making some fair points.  Then I read the above sequence.  That’s the event.
  2. My ability to perceive and understand the information contained within said event led to parts of my mind, of which I am mostly unaware, to create an emotional response which flavored and colored any cognitive ideas and decisions I was capable of subsequently considering.
  3. I considered the rational and logical implications of the ideas, flavored unconsciously by my background emotions for which I have no conscious control but which I am responsible for reacting to.
  4. I decided I disagreed with Glickman’s sequence, making sure that my emotional considerations were not over-riding my rational capabilities (knowing that I may still be wrong).
  5. I felt frustration, disagreement, and began to compose rational reasons why I disagreed, fueled by the emotional frustration and disagreement.
  6. Here I am

The point of this is to illuminate that where the offense occurs here is at the pre-concious emotional level.  I am responsible for how I react to this, not the source of the offense.  Alex or Glickman should no more apologize for making me feel frustrated than should the phone on which I read the post.  The result is that I’m not mad at Alex (or Glickman), my phone was not thrown, and I made the rational decision to respond to the post with a rational critique rather than dell in the frustration..

We are responsible for how we respond to our emotions, including offense.  We are not consciously responsible for our emotions, since they pre-exist our conscious awareness, and offense is simply an emotion.  If we are offended, we need to consider why we are offended and what we should do about it.  Blaming the source, rather than take responsibility for our mind, is not always the best option.

There are many things to consider when it comes to offense.

Is the act or idea which we found offensive true or does it reveal a truth? Then why be offended by the truth?

Was it an act that harms me directly, physically? Was it done intentionally? Was it done via negligence?

There are many other questions which I will not try and enumerate here.

In the case of an unintentional harm, I wold hope that the person who acted and caused the offense should at least sympathize (I should not expect it, but I should hope for it), but I don’t think they have any responsibility for atonement or to make amends.  So for them to say they are sorry, we have to wonder what they mean.  If they simply mean that they sympathize with the offense (like the Spanish ‘lo siento’), then I’ll agree that it is a sign of a sensitive and caring person, but what of atonement?  Sympathy can help solidify social bonds, but this is not the same as an attempt to make amends.

Should the offender try and make amends? Sure, if they want to, but in many cases this would be silly.  If I were to make a statement such as “faith is irrational and harmful” (which I am wont to do) and another takes offense at this, I certainly sympathize with their feeling but I don’t think I owe any amends for this.  I have done nothing wrong in stating an opinion, one which I hold for what I see as good reasons.  Hell, even if I’m wrong I owe no amends, I just have to be shown that I’m wrong.

What could it mean to owe amends for an opinion which is seen as offensive? Does it mean I change my opinion? Does it mean that I don’t say my opinion? This is the basis for the charge that religious people crying ” that’s offensive” as being an attempt to shut up criticism.  There is nothing to atone for in an opinion spoken, even if it does lead to offense.  So if an apology means that we sympathize, then fine, but I think that’s a weak use of ‘apology’ and I think apologies (in the sense of making amends) should be reserved for when we do something wrong, not merely when offense occurs.

Offense is not the criteria for apologies; doing something wrong, harmful, etc is the criteria for an apology.  Offense can happen for bad reasons, good reasons, or no reason at all.  This is the case because offense happens before we are even conscious of the idea we find offensive, so it pre-exists reason.  it is arational.

In short, there is no right to not be offended, and if we are offended then we are responsible for dealing with it.  It is only when someone actually wrongs us, not merely offends us, that they have any moral culpability which might lead to an apology.