“That’s offensive” has become one of the most effective ways to end a discussion.
Since its inception, the U.S. has seen a general trend not only toward tolerance, but also acceptance and genuine attempts to integrate and learn about peoples who have not traditionally been a part of mainstream American society, despite minor fluctuations in the rate of progress. While this may seem to be an obvious expectation, the same cannot be said for Europe.
However, as inclusion has blossomed, the dandelion of political correctness has been growing steadily on the side. It is stronger today than ever.
Political correctness is a very nice idea. While it has many interpretations and manifestations, the basic gist is not to say things in a way that a certain group could interpret as demeaning. In other words, don’t offend.
Almost all “offensive” things one could say can be broken down into two different categories: ad hominem attacks, and ideas.
The first category of offense is often rooted in malice and the desire to make a person feel worse about himself or herself. Usually, this sort of offense involves a criticism of one’s identity. Most instances of this sort of offense are a result of misguided attempts at humor, irrational moment sof anger, or lack of social judgment, often involving the perpetuation of some sort of stereotype.
Rarely does society benefit from these instances of offense. However, claiming “that’s offensive” is not the most beneficial way of responding to such comments. The word “offended” can represent many different emotional responses. It is better for the offended person to candidly explain his or her emotional response. Doing so helps both parties better understand each other.
Regardless, eliminating ad hominem attacks is unlikely to have widespread social implications. However, there is tangible evidence that eliminating the second category, ideas, has impeded our ability to address certain issues with intellectual honesty.
There are many people who prioritize the sensitivity toward one group over the ability to have a candid discussion about a pertinent topic. Consider an article Salon published questioning our practice of dubbing all members of the military service as heroes as soon as they enlist. Regardless of whether or not readers agreed with all or any of the article, the writer presented several original points and logical arguments as to why it was infantile to put soldiers on an untouchable pedestal just because they are soldiers. Even the person who disagrees most ardently would be interested in offering an explanation as to why this writer’s claims were wrong.
Unfortunately, the article mainly gave rise to a number of articles demanding an apology, without any sort of content-based response to the writer’s arguments. Granted, many of these responses came from right-wing blog sites, but Twitter was also set ablaze with condemnations of the article from people as liberal as Montel Williams. There was one tweet that best summed up the collective response attitude: “You guys are all heroes, no matter what Salon says.”
Another manifestation of this problem was evident in the widely circulated discussion between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck about the prevalence of Muslims who ascribe to certain Islamic doctrine in countries throughout the Middle East. Harris opened the discussion by saying “Every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people…I’m not denying that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people, and that is a problem.”
Affleck then attempts to shut down the discussion: “It’s gross. It’s racist…It’s like saying ‘Oh, you shifty Jew.’” After Harris explicitly differentiates criticizing Islamic doctrine from bigotry against people who identify as Muslims, Affleck’s immediate response is to compare it to an ad hominem offense. Additionally, he makes the dishonest claim of categorizing criticism of religious principles as “racism,” in an attempt to delegitimize Harris’s argument.
Luckily, Harris did not allow himself to be silenced by Affleck’s attempt to make him a pariah, and he was eventually able to engage the panel in a discussion. Unfortunately, most people do not have the epidermal thickness Sam Harris has cultivated throughout his career as a polemicist. In many instances of everyday conversation, Affleck’s method of thought bullying would be quite effective.
Given the consequences of political correctness, should we make sure to engage anyone’s idea, no matter how offensive it may be? For instance, should we engage the KKK, who advocate a racially-segregated society, in a discussion of race relations in the U.S.? Or chat with the Westboro Baptist Church about its views on gay marriage?
Most people would not only feel an abhorrent physical illness to those groups’ views, but would quickly destroy them in a rational debate. Of course, these two groups are marginal. Their views do not threaten our society’s well being; it is not at all important that their views be discussed.
Such potentially harmful viewpoints must not be silenced entirely. Rather than shut down a conversation the next time someone presents an opinion that makes your skin crawl, just listen. It will likely reinforce your repulsion to the idea, and you will better understand your repulsion. And there is a chance that person actually has a point.
There is no greater waste and inhibition toward our continued progress than suppression of mere discussion due to the risk of offending. Perpetual comfort is not a foundational block to a free and prosperous society. The ability to argue ideas is.
Contact Pepito Escarce at pescarce ‘at’ stanford.edu