Monday, October 24, 2016

Unraveling Offense

I think it was in Mary Midgley's book Wisdom, Information and Wonder (Routledge, 1989) that I first encountered the idea that real-world thinking -- rationally, critically -- is not like building on a firm foundation, but more like unraveling a huge tangle of yarn: you pick away here and there, making some progress here and then moving to another area until you can't go any further there.  After you've done that awhile, you may find that something comes loose and you suddenly have a large section that comes free.  After that, however, it's back to picking away at it.

I had an interesting little exchange online that worked this way.  Someone linked favorably to a Facebook post, illustrated with a photo, by a nursing mother who defended the right of women to breastfeed uncovered in public if they're comfortable doing so.  (She also defended the right of women not to do so, to use a cover if they're more comfortable doing it that way.)  One woman commented on the repost:
I'm from a different generation. I cannot condone nursing in public. That's what breast pumps are for. Have a little consideration for those around you who may be offended. Think about what you wouldn't want to see exposed in public. How would you like it if men were allowed to just hang all out in restaurants? Before you say It's not the same thing -- it really is. Common decency dictates that we are respectful of others. This is disrespectful of people like me. I would walk out of a restaurant that allowed this.
I replied:
It's not the same thing. It's fascinating that you believe it is, though. How far do you demand that we take "consideration for those around you who may be offended"? People get offended by just about anything. The book you're reading. The way you wear your hair. The cross you're wearing, or the headscarf. And so on. People need to learn that being offended doesn't give them the right to throw a tantrum and attack the person who offended them; and this applies to everybody, not just Christian rightists.
Maybe I should say instead that people do have the right to throw a tantrum when they're offended -- but others have the right to regard it the way they regard any tantrum, with tolerance but distaste.  This woman has the right to walk out of a restaurant that allowed a mother to breastfeed, of course, but it doesn't put her on the moral high ground.  Someone who stormed out of a restaurant that served a same-sex or interracial couple or a woman in a hijab would have the same right, but fewer and fewer people anymore would agree that the person's sense of outrage was justified.  Go, most people would think or say, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.

I also wondered about her conviction that it would be dreadful if men "were allowed to hang all out in restaurants."  For one thing, her wording, which seems at once euphemistic and raunchy.  More important, the penis and testicles are not analogous to women's breasts.  Men are allowed to go bare-chested in many environments, while women are not.  And I am baffled by the widespread belief that the sight of a penis, even a flaccid one, is horrible and traumatic, at least for women.  No doubt many men like the idea that exposing themselves gives them power over women.  It's interesting that a woman would claim that the sight of a woman's breast, or part of it, should be equally traumatic; I can imagine that if she lived in certain Islamist societies, she'd say the same of a woman's naked face.  Even granting that, however, women who breastfeed aren't trying to provoke a reaction, not trying to shock: they are feeding their infants.

At around the same time (this was several months ago -- I'm rummaging around in my drafts folder again), a relevant excerpt from an essay by the political philosopher Michael Walzer was posted at Alas, a Blog.  I have my differences with Walzer, but I thought he had an important insight here.
In multicultural politics it is an advantage to be injured. Every injury, every act of discrimination or disrespect, every heedless, invidious, or malicious word is a kind of political entitlement, if not to reparation then at least to recognition. So one has to cultivate, as it were, a thin skin; it is important to be sensitive, irritable, touchy. But perhaps there is some deeper utility here. Thin skins are useful precisely because the cultural identities over which they are stretched don’t have any very definite or substantive character. People are right to be worried about cultural loss. And because identity is so precarious in modern or postmodern America, because we are so often so uncertain about who we are, we may well fail to register expressions of hostility, prejudice, or disfavor. Thin skin is the best protection: it provides the earliest possible signal of insults delivered and threats on the way. Like other early warning systems, of course, it also transmits false signals–and then a lot of time has to be spent in explanation and reassurance. But this too is part of the process of negotiating a difficult coexistence in a world where difference is nervously possessed and therefore often aggressively displayed.

Despite all the misunderstandings generated by the mix of nervous groups and thin-skinned individuals, there is something right about all this. Social peace should not be purchased at the price of fear, deference, passivity, and self-dislike–the feelings that standardly accompanied minority status in the past. The old left wanted to substitute anger at economic injustice for all these, but it is at least understandable that the actual substitute is the resentment of social insult. We want to be able and we ought to be able to live openly in the world, as we are, with dignity and confidence, without being demeaned or degraded in our everyday encounters. It may even be that dignity and confidence are the preconditions for the fight against injustice.

So it is worth taking offense–I am not sure it is always worth feeling hurt–when demeaning and malicious things are said or done. But a permanent state of suspicion that demanding and malicious things are about to be said or done is self-defeating. And it is probably also self-defeating to imagine that the long-term goal of recognition and respect is best reached directly, by aiming at and insisting on respect itself. (Indeed, the insistence is comic; Rodney Dangerfield has made a career out of it.)….People do not win respect by insisting they are not respected enough. ("Multiculturalism and the Politics of Interest," in David Biale et al., eds., Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998], 89-90).
Walzer was talking here primarily about black/Jewish relations, but I think his point extends to other groups as well, and he knew it.  I recognized the struggle the gay movement had in the 70s and even afterward to get gay people to be offended by public displays of bigotry, partly because they often agreed that as a despicable minority, we should be grateful only to be insulted rather than killed or expelled.  We had to learn to be offended.  (Feminists faced the same resistance from most women: why was she out walking by herself at night, in that neighborhood?  Shouldn't good jobs be reserved for men, who have families to support?  And so on.)  It took me, at least, a long time to realize that it wasn't enough to be offended, you have to learn to judge what offenses really matter, and what to do about them -- and that is not an objective question.

In general we don't consider our opponents' feelings of offense and "cultural loss" to be valid, because they aren't ours, and because they block our getting the change that we want.  But if being offended is a bad thing from which we ought to be protected at all costs, and many people evidently believe it is, then all offensive displays must be forbidden -- and I think I'm right that this is impossible, partly because almost any behavior you can name will offend someone, and partly because offenses clash, and sometimes we do need to suck it up and learn to live in a world where we aren't always comfortable.  Being offended is often a sign that we need to begin educating ourselves further.

At Indiana University there have been a few cases over the past few decades where students' and others' complaints of offense were overridden.  One involved a New-Deal-era mural by Thomas Hart Benton, from a series in a lecture hall, that depicted (among other subjects) Ku Klux Klanners burning a cross.  African-American students complained that they shouldn't have to see such an image in a classroom: "Students report feeling uncomfortable by the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. Some find it difficult to attend lectures and others report difficulty focusing on exams."  Myself, I was surprised that the objection didn't come from right-wing white students complaining that the mural stereotyped whites as racists; that we heard nothing from that faction was, I thought, significant, but not reason enough to remove the mural.  And couldn't the hootchie-cootchie dancer to the right of the Klansmen be seen as 1) a problematic image of women and/or 2) distracting to students taking exams?  In the end the murals remained in place.

At around the same time, there were complaints about decorated tiles in the entry to what was then the Physical Education building, which was built in 1917.

Some of the tiles bore swastikas, which in 1917 was a Hindu and Buddhist symbol.  The Nazis didn't adopt the swastika until years later.  Some students, unaware of the historical and religious background, called for the tiles' removal.  This call was also unsuccessful. This case raises interesting questions: when a symbol or image is ambiguous for historical or other reasons, should it be suppressed because someone fastens onto one of its possible meanings and ignores the others?  Also, Jewish students among others have good historical reason to be disturbed by the sight of Christian crosses; should they be kept out of public view?  Should people on a state-supported university campus be forbidden to wear them?

I've been trying to think of analogous images that might offend me as a gay man, to the point that I'd demand their removal and suppression.  I imagine there are some, but I can't think of any offhand, and I'd have to have a concrete example before I could evaluate it.  I might very well point out that a certain image was offensive, even disturbing, but probably only to try to get people to think and talk about it -- which, of course, most people don't want to do.

I think the distinction Walzer draws between "being offended" and "being hurt" is a useful one, and his account of the pitfalls of deliberately cultivating a thin skin largely agrees with my opinions.  I think, however, that many people reject the distinction: you've offended me, therefore you've hurt me, and I demand recognition, reparation, and protection against any further offense.  But sometimes people who are trying to get a discussion going will be accused of wanting suppression first, by people (usually from majority or other privileged groups) who want to suppress the discussion because it offends them.

I don't see any clear solution to this problem.  Each case has to be examined on its own merits or lack of them.  I think, though, that it would be a beginning to recognize the limits of offense.  "I'm offended by that" is where you start; the first response should be, "And ...?"  What to do about your offense, or my offense, isn't immediately obvious.  In many cases it's likely to be nothing.  In others it'll be a firm suggestion to educate yourself further and then consider submitting your complaint again.  In others you and your feelings of offense might be the problem, as in this item, purportedly a letter from an African-American law professor to white students who objected to his wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on campus.  I'm a bit suspicious of its authenticity, but this is one case where the content is what counts: it answers real complaints and accusations made against BLM, and answers them well.  Its arguments would be as valid in response to the students who complained about the Benton murals and the swastika tiles.