Taking and Giving Offense

Something came full circle the other day. On a mailing list for historians of France, H-FRANCE, someone had asked for good teaching materials about the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent events. Many suggestions came forth, including some of the commentaries that blame the Charlie journalists for being Islamophobic (a view more common in the US and UK than in France). And this too:

As a former journalist in Charlie, really offended by what I read about my ex-magazine (a real antiracist newspaper who just did laugh about fanatics of all religions), I would love to be part of the discussion by adding this article : http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/7185898

Thank you, Caroline Fourest

I would never deny Caroline Fourest the right to be “offended” by what she reads. I don’t doubt that her feelings are sincere. “Offended,” in this case, means “outraged to read things said about this group that I, as a member of the group, am sure are not true.”

Being offended has become the primary channel of response to works of art and the intellect, it seems to me sometimes. Not that everyone acts on their offense by pulling out the automatic weapons, mercifully; but rare it is that anybody bothers to pause and think about how something might have been constructed, or how one’s own perception delicately interacts with properties of the message proposed, or whether there is a looming situation or context that predetermines the way something will be taken– in short, whether there are mitigating factors. People are offended, they demand that the offending word be taken back or eliminated, and they usually preface their declarations with an “As…” clause. “As a former Comcast subscriber,” “As a graduate of a non-Ivy institution,” “As a sufferer from myopia,” I hereby announce to you that your words or images have the effect of demeaning me in the eyes of the world, and I call on you to retract, apologize, and right this wrong.

The judgment of offense is easier to put forth than the judgment of taste (at least as Manny Kant formulated it) because the latter seeks recognition as a “universal,” whereas to be offended, all you have to do is name yourself as a member of a group and claim that your particular group is wronged. And far from being “universal,” the judgment of offense can’t be subjected to dialectical testing (I can’t say “no, you’re not offended”; I can barely say, “you have no reason to be offended,” but that’s not often going to be accepted). Moreover, the relation between the truth and falsity of the representation at issue can be completely flexible. I might denounce your account of me because it is inaccurate, or I might denounce it because it is too accurate (but I don’t want to argue about its accuracy): the shriek of being offended obscures the matter of fact. If you wanted to prove that Charlie was not a racist periodical, there are ways of doing that. You show examples, you quote statements of policy, you do statistics, you tell stories about the editorial board (which counted several people of a non-Vieille-France background). But being “offended” seems to be beside the point.

Especially since the point of Charlie— and of so many journals that came before it, on the right and on the left– was to offend.

Is nothing sacred?