A response to those who claim offense

(A fitting poster for this post...)

It's often the case that people are quick to respond to content or people they happen to disagree with with a 'sit down and shut up' mentality in which they believe that certain ideas just shouldn't be discussed. Is this an appropriate attitude to have? In a pluralistic society, I argue, claiming offense and objecting to content -- simply because you happen not to like it -- is unacceptable and immature.

Throughout my 'career' as a 'professional atheist' [a label, expressed with derision, that WILK Newsradio host Steve Corbett used to dismissively refer to me on a recent episode of his radio show] many people -- no matter how mild my tone is or how much I write that persons should not interpret disagreement as disrespect -- claim that my work is offensive. Some people even go so far as to assert that I should cease publishing content, criticizing religious ideas, and simply just 'sit down and shut up.' I've posted several responses to these concerns in the past, but wish to, in this post, hopefully put this issue of offense and objections to my work to rest.

Possible motivations and problems

I believe that many assertions of offense and general objections to my work are hasty responses that are the result of an emotional reaction and a belief that cherished ideas should not be dissected. In a world with so much disagreement and sequestering of ourselves -- despite, ironically enough, the openness of the internet and the increased exposure people can have to different ideas -- perhaps some believe that we should just 'live and let live' and mainly communicate with those who are like-minded. Not enough exposure, perhaps, might be a reason that people have such a difficult time dealing with ideas foreign to them.

Perhaps a hellish mix of misplaced or misunderstood aims of diversity and truth relativism (the notion that truth is relative from individual to individual and/or that there is no such thing as objective truth) has unfortunately led people to believe that everyone can be right about any issue, all beliefs are ultimately one's opinion, and that it's simply just rude to disagree with anyone. Ironically, some efforts to 'draw people together' and find common ground seem to be responsible for causing much harm and intellectual suicide. In the name of what some consider to be tolerance and diversity, some have blissfully placed their brains in blenders and have not achieved a degree of tolerance worth wanting.

Additionally, the ever-returning and often mentioned [in this blog, at least] 'right to opinion' might also be a culprit serving as a barrier to honest discussion...

Cognitive dissonance, the sensation/experience felt when one happens to seemingly hold contradictory beliefs or becomes exposed to information which runs counter to their beliefs, can be difficult to deal with. It seems quite easy to 'throw up the smokescreens' and become defensive when our beliefs challenged and it seems quite difficult to overcome the easy response and, instead of becoming defensive, 'step back' from our ideas and even do so much as to consider another point of view. Perhaps cognitive dissonance is responsible for the attitude of deflection of criticisms?

The general responses of "you shouldn't talk about that" or "you should just leave these ideas alone" that often seem to come from those who object with offense to certain content are often quite short and without explanation or argument (and hopefully I'm not a victim of confirmation bias here). When these comments are made, I typically ask for persons to explain their reasoning and elaborate, but they fail to do so. If persons respond -- after I defend myself, expand on my ideas, and further clarify my reasoning pertaining to the issue at hand -- original objectors continue to, instead of responding to the content, object to a discussion about certain matters even taking place (while the discussion is taking place).

This 'methodology' is not a sign -- it seems -- of an honest discussion in which the objecting party is looking for a conversation; this seems to be characteristic of a hit-and-run tactic paired with an insufficient concern for truth and intellectual laziness. One would expect that people who were willing enough to object to my work would be willing to have an honest discussion if they were willing enough to post and were genuinely offended [perhaps seeking to squelch the content], but this unfortunately isn't the case. Perhaps I am giving people too much credit.

Some philosophy might save us...

In his book "The View From Nowhere," philosopher Thomas Nagel explains how difficult it can be to critically self-reflect and how impossible it might be to 'separate ourselves' from our beliefs. A state of total objectivity -- it appears -- is something we just can't reach as human beings, but we can try our best to work toward objectivity - and with good reason. Self-reflection and a willingness to modify our beliefs -- provided good reason, argument, and evidence are presented that justifies a cognitive shift -- is essential to being an intellectually-minded individual and perhaps even a productive mature functioning member of society.

What good would life be if we never amended our beliefs or realized our errs? We all make mistakes or might happen to hold incorrect ideas for whatever reasons (often no fault of our own) and that's nothing to be ashamed of. What should be considered shameful, though, is an unwillingness to amend our beliefs and a closed-minded attitude. Realizing that our beliefs were inaccurate and considering a new perspective shouldn't be something that we avoid, but rather should be something we embrace. I call this progress, openness, and a concern for truth.

In a 'marketplace of ideas' and a pluralistic society that is not filled with 'yes men' or 'yes woman,' some people will feel offended or provoked by certain content because people regard their beliefs as important self-identifying characteristics and view 'threats' to their beliefs as character attacks. Someone is bound to claim offense when issues such as worldviews and religions are being scrutinized. Before claiming offense, though, or acting in an immature fashion -- especially when content with quite a mild tone is being considered -- people ought to realize that disagreement is inevitable. Just about anyone can claim to be offended by just about anything, so the questions that should be considered are "Is it reasonable for me to claim offense?" and "What should the response be to content I consider offensive?" before people jump to unreasonable conclusions and make unreasonable demands for others to cease expressing their ideas.

One person's 'offensive content' is the next person's 'telling it like it is' that is, as some may see it, quite uncontroversial. With a sea of differing value judgments and barometers as to what is appropriate and inappropriate, it seems futile to protest to anything and everything out there. While there may be no objective standard for what can be considered offensive (mainly, perhaps, because this is an issue of personal taste and there is no quick-and-dirty way to distinguish 'offensive' from 'not offensive'), we shouldn't despair. The proper reaction to what one considers to be offensive, then, considering mentioned issues, is a mature attitude in which one realizes that people will happen to disagree - and disagreement shouldn't force or otherwise demand people to cease from publishing 'any old content.'

Offense isn't the goal, but progress should be

It's difficult for me to identify a single or primary motivation -- if one even exists -- pertaining to why I do what I do, but I can say that I don't write with an intention to offend people, provoke, or make people upset. Writing -- what seems to be my main focus as far as my involvement in the secular community is concerned -- can serve many different purposes such as highlighting bigotry, inspiring people to work toward change, and helping people to understand where certain people are 'coming from' outside of the quick soundbytes and short tweets (although these can be helpful). I like to author longer posts, although they may not be read by as many people if the posts happened to be shorter, in order to allow people to understand my reasoning and further the conversation.

Self-reflection and exposure to new ideas can be a learning experience, a catalyst toward progress, an 'opening door' to new opportunities, a chance to defend one's beliefs and respond to thoughtful objections, and so much more. Instead of claiming offense and avoiding discussion with people, engaging oneself can be quite fulfilling and productive even thought it may seem uncomfortable. If all else fails and engaging with new ideas is too much to handle -- or persons simply just don't want to engage with ideas -- persons can simply 'take the high road' instead of objecting to ideas being voiced with a substantive response.

It seems to be more important that people -- if we were forced with one option over another -- live together than agree on everything. Disagreement is inevitable, so we ought to be able to respond to people and ideas we might happen to disagree with in an intellectually mature and honest manner. Living together, while it may seem very difficult, seems to be much more possible than a successful effort for humans to agree on all issues. Having honest discussions and interacting with people whom we might happen to disagree with seems to allow for our own intellectual progress and understanding of other people. Instead of glibly claiming offense and asserting that others should 'sit down and shut up,' let's assume a mature attitude and be realistic.

As always, comments are welcome. Sharing this post on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and wherever else (click below to share!) is also appreciated.

If you're interested in my thoughts (and the thoughts of Rodney Collins) on another related and often overlapping matter, 'respecting beliefs,' please listen to Episode 9 of the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast titled, as you might have guessed, "Respecting Beliefs" in audio and/or video formats.