Sitting on the offence

How easily are you offended? And if ever you are offended, how seriously do you expect people to take your complaint?

Some years ago, I saw a large poster advertising the views of a group supporting vivisection, and became angry as I read it because I felt that what it alleged as “facts” were lies and distortions. I penned a letter of complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority but they replied that as the poster was “political”, they could not arbitrate on its content. Was I offended? You bet I was. I wrote a very angry letter to the ASA to express my disgust.

The point of the anecdote is that someone offended my sensibilities and my reaction was to seek redress from an “authority”. When this “authority” let me down (as I saw it), I felt truly aggrieved.

Now I know, dear reader, that you are intelligent and perspicacious and will already have guessed where this is leading: at a juncture in our history when religion is under pressure as never before and is reacting with outrage and even violence to these pressures, I see a very clear parallel between believers’ feelings and the feelings I experienced over the poster.

A wise person once said that to understand all is to forgive all. I don’t know that I go all the way with that thought. I think it is quite possible to understand why someone does something and still to execrate both the deed and the person who commits it. However, if a little learning is a dangerous thing, then a little understanding can be a very confusing thing. To understand your enemies risks turning them back into human beings and making it that much harder to attack them with coldblooded zeal. In fact, we might even find ourselves wondering whether we should be attacking them at all. And that, dear friends, is a very worrying thought.

What prompted these cogitations was a thoughtful article in New Humanist magazine in which Tzvetan Todorov talks about the “Danish Cartoon Crisis” and suggests that while the reaction of religious groups was unacceptable, the Europeans involved, including the Danish government, could have acted with more common sense and understanding and taken a wider view of the situation. I have to admit that when I started reading the article I was unconvinced but that by the end I was beginning to have second thoughts. (That’s philosophers for you: wretched folk who make you think.)

I will leave you to read the article for yourself and draw your own conclusions. For myself I will say that I feel that as our world becomes ever smaller and we are thrown into ever closer contact with one another, causes of conflict will increase not only in number but also in seriousness. We need to reduce conflict, not cultivate new sources of it. That is not to say that we should appease those who do bad things in the vain hope that this will bring peace – it won’t. It will in fact make things worse, as we can see by looking around us. At the same time there is a danger of adopting a posture in defence of our rights and freedoms that seems more like aggression than defence to the other side.

In the West we have a tradition of attacking the argument, not the arguer. We stand on that and react indignantly to those who respond to criticism of their ideals with a violence appropriate to a physical attack on their persons and the persons of those whom they revere, perhaps because we fail to understand that our approach is far from universal and that for many people in the world belief, believer and believed-in come as a package: you cannot attack the one without attacking the other.

What conclusions do I draw from that? I am not sure; I am still working on it. Maybe it means we need to be more sensitive to the feelings of others, more understanding of their reactions. We are all, religious believers and freethinkers alike, locked into our own ideologies with no common ground on which to initiate a dialogue. It’s no good each side expecting the other to give way alone: that leads to endless anger and frustration. We freethinkers are good at waving the flag of Freedom, perhaps not always as good at waving the companion flag of Responsibility.

Ultimately, the responsibility is joint, of course. It takes two to tango and also to make peace. I can’t make peace with you if you won’t make peace with me. War is expensive but so is peace: we both have to give up something in order to agree but it may be better to give it up voluntarily in a spirit of generosity than bitterly at the muzzle of a gun.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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2 Responses to Sitting on the offence

  1. athinkingman says:

    I would want to go as far as possible in creating peace, and would sometimes want to act responsibly in the interests of the greater good rather than unnecessarily cause offence over something trivial.

    The problem I have is this. I hold the view (perhaps wrongly) that I am not largely responsible for another person’s reaction. If two twins were both listening to something I said it is perfectly possible that one might laugh and the other might cry in response. I believe that we are all responsible for creating our own meanings and life would be a lot better if we accepted that and stopped trying to blame other people for them.

    When I apply the above to a situation where I might cause offence, I need to ask some questions: Is what I want to say true? Am I planning to say it in a reasonable way? As a fellow human being, do I have as much right to express my thoughts and feelings as the next person? If the answers to those are “yes”, then I am reluctant to be quiet, simply because of how another party might respond. And even if they do respond by taking offence, I am very reluctant to accept responsibility for that offence.

    So, I understand the argument, but it doesn’t rest comfortably with me at the moment. I suppose there is often a difficult judgement to make because there must be a very thin line between justified pacification and appeasement.


  2. SilverTiger says:

    I see the point. I think that when something needs to be said, it should be said and the person to whom it is said should be mature enough to listen and consider it without immediately responding with outrage. One of the very real problems we face around the world and even in this country is that certain groups do not possess that maturity. If you raise a problem with them, they react with the hackneyed accusations of “blasphemy” and “disrespect of religion” or even “racism”. I am not at all sure how we should deal with this problem.

    I am not suggesting that we should remain silent and not raise problems. What I suggest is that before publishing statements and cartoons that we know are guaranteed to cause offence, we should stop and reflect whether we really need to do this. In our daily lives, we try to be discreet in the way we handle people; we avoid being too blunt; we “let them down gently”. If we can do this with family, friends and colleagues, why can we not do so when dealing with people of different ethnic or religious background? Why do so many atheists feel it necessary to approach believers in an insulting manner?


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