The Fallacy of ‘Deepest Offence’

The Fallacy of ‘Deepest Offence’

By Peter Ellerton

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Nothing is so central to a liberal society as the right to discuss ideas. Not being able to do this at all is totalitarianism – the banning of discussing, and even thinking about, unsanctioned ideas.  So where on the continuum of control can we comfortably sit?  Some would say only on the absolute edge of the former.  Others may find that too extreme a view.  Certainly the further we move away from unfettered public speech the murkier become the waters, with calls of and for censorship beginning after the first paddle stroke.

But this essay is not about that.  This essay is about where this boundary lies for and within individuals.  It is about exploring that most cherished of hurts, the pain of being offended.

There are several ways to experience this indignation.  One is to be physically imposed upon. It’s not hard to argue, outside of law enforcement, that there are few ways to permit this against someone’s wishes.  Corporeal assaults are offensive, always to the victim and usually to the spectator.  We take this as a given and tolerate very little of such behaviour from anyone.

A second way is to be verbally or behaviourally affronted.  Perhaps we are ignored at a function, or someone insults our person or family with meaning literal or implied.  Maybe we deserved it at the time, but we probably thought we didn’t.  Because such things can be very subtle or subjective, and often because we want to believe that words can’t really hurt us, these are not seen in the same way as physical disrespect.  Of course the tipping point of public reaction to non-physical aggressive behaviour comes when words are unambiguous and are clearly designed to inflict pain.  We then feel more secure in our condemnation and are more willing to express it.

So what happens when you are really, really offended by something someone says or does but no one around you seems to think it important enough to be outraged on your behalf? Well, first you’d best establish that you’re deeply offended.  At least people will be aware of it.  Don’t be very offended, don’t be extremely offended: be deeply offended.  It must be clear that the offence penetrates like a knife.  It’s best if the offence strikes you to the very core of your being, for then it is as damaging as possible without actually drawing blood.  Facial expressions to mimic physical discomfort would not be unhelpful.

And what words could cause such offence?  One might imagine a threat to the physical safety of you and your loved ones would be so efficacious.   But is this where we find it most often?  No.  It seems this is the destination along a path of least resistance for those whose ideology is challenged.  And what sort of ideology is our most frequent example? Well, I leave it to the reader to decide, because this essay is not about that either.

This essay is about the tendency of some to claim for ideas what rightly belongs to people: a priori respect. We automatically adopt a respectful demeanor to our fellows as thinking, feeling, emoting companions.  At this basic level, people have to work hard to lose our respect, and even then we may choose not to leave them at the last because we value human life and dignity.

I’m not talking about how I don’t really appreciate the way Fred mows his lawn as 7:00 am on a Sunday.  I’m talking about how I would see that as trivial were he to suffer some great harm because I have some level of empathy with him – as we all do simply by the fact of his existence (yes, abnormal psychologies notwithstanding).  I also respect that Fred contributes in some way to the social norms we all enjoy, and that he, like all of us, is a creator of society as well as a participant in it.

Ideas have no such empathic traction.  Unlike people they cannot suffer, they do not know joy and they do not contribute by themselves to the happiness of others.  That is not to say there are no really good or really bad ideas that, when developed and implemented, might cause enormous happiness or suffering, but only that they do not enjoy the same rights as people. Ideas need to stand and fall exclusively on their merits.  They need to withstand critical scrutiny and need to be articulated and argued to survive.

So people and ideas are different things.  This is certainly true in that I am not my patented, self-cleaning bathtub, but is it just as true that I am not my political ideology, or that I am not my religious view?  These latter may not be quite so neatly teased apart. When does my idea become my creed?

For the individual, there is a distinct difference between a casual idea and a core belief.  Indeed, we may even claim that without that core belief we would be other than the person we are, while other ideas flit ineffectually in and out of our contemplation.  But here is where we need to acknowledge the painful fact that what is a core belief to us may be simply an idea to someone else and, like all ideas in a free society, it must be permissible to subject it to inquiry.  To assume that the idea may not be questioned because it is a part of your identity, and that an attack on it is an attack on you, equivalent to a denial of human respect, is a fallacy; and I name it here the ‘fallacy of deepest offence’.

The fallacy of deepest offence is a blurring of the line between people and ideas.  It is a device, by which ideas are rendered immune to critical inquiry behind the claim of deepest possible offence: insult to human dignity.

I would take the trouble to add that none of us have a right to tell others what they should or should not believe.  If you want to believe that the world is made of snow, that women are inferior to men or that homosexuality is morally wrong then go ahead.  But the instant you take that belief into the public arena, your ideas will be rightfully tested.  The minute you suggest others should believe it too, you will be challenged.  When you ask that the taxes of your fellow citizens support your beliefs, you will be resisted.  This is exactly how an open society operates and should operate.  You are not immune because you are sincere.

It is often these intimate ideas that people wish to spread most vigorously, so that in the world of ideas this fallacious approach is more common than one might wish.

To not recognise this fallacy within us creates two problems at the very least.  The first is that we lose the ability to reflect on our own internal processes.  If we do not look inwards and question what we see, we fossilise, led more by our creed than by our critical faculties.  This is not personal growth, or at minimum is an impediment to it.   The second is that we become less tolerant of others, less willing to work collaboratively, and less able to comprehend arguments.  Both of these diminish our ability to contribute and to co-exist.

It is painful to live with people. Some leave the toilet seat up, some don’t shoulder their responsibilities, and some will at times make us feel small or silly. We have reasons to despair of our family, friends, workmates and acquaintances, and we may rightfully feel offended by some of the things they do or say, but we cannot hope that our surprise and distaste at having our central tenets laid out for critical examination is supportable by reason.  To make the claim of offence in this way is to not only commit the fallacy, but is also to utterly disrespect the right of your fellows to engage in honest inquiry, and that is a very deep offence indeed.


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About Peter Ellerton

Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project and Lecturer in Critical Thinking.
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