In recent articles in Public Discourse and First Things, Matthew J. Franck reports on the portrayal of defenders of traditional marriage as irrational bigots motivated by fear and hate. In a Washington Post piece, he writes, “Clearly a determined effort is afoot … to anathematize traditional views of sexual morality … as the expression of ‘hate’ that cannot be tolerated in a decent civil society. The argument over same-sex marriage must be brought to an end, and the debate considered settled.”
His articles reveal how odd it is for one group to fiat the end of debate by declaring a particular set of arguments unworthy of consideration; or, more peculiarly, by declaring that these arguments may not be considered without thereby revealing one’s own status as bigoted, hateful, and offensive.
These absurdities to which Franck points make criticism in contemporary argument a process often uncomfortable and futile. In his masterful That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect, Stefan Collini summarizes our resulting hesitation toward argument by explaining how debate is shut down when members of criticized groups believe they are at a historical disadvantage. For many contemporaries, he writes, “an enlightened global politics” requires “treating all other people with equal respect and, second, trying to avoid words or deeds which threaten to compound existing disadvantages.” Given their historically disadvantaged and ostracized position, Collini reports, it is thought that some “social groups … have an equal right to hold or express their convictions without being ‘dissed’ by anyone else.” In other words, to argue against a historically disadvantaged group is apparently to commit an intrinsically hateful, bigoted, and offensive act.
Offense cannot but emphasize “the subjectivity of the person offended.” Yet Collini rightly insists that the mere fact of feeling offended is an insufficient reason to believe that one should take offense; rather, there is “some element of conviction that such a reaction is legitimate or justified.” Since one who takes offense realizes to some degree that he reacts to a case “that others will find appropriate or persuasive … about something generally acknowledged to be significant,” his mere feeling of being offended is not endowed with “unchallengeable authority.” Nevertheless, if the dominant culture is thought to be “constituted by precisely those widespread assumptions and habits” that the offended party finds offensive, appeals to general acknowledgment as the standard of legitimacy hardly settles the problem of subjectivity. Indeed, it is precisely when the majority culture is tone-deaf that an oppressed group’s subjective experience allegedly requires no other justification than its own offense.
Collini argues that the heart of the matter is resentment against those perceived as powerful; even if the criticism against our belief or action has some tinge of truth to it, the feeling of powerlessness is worsened when the criticism is by them (of all people!) against us, and against us now. Here Collini articulates a profound problem: If someone of good fortune or historical privilege criticizes me, and I belong to a subordinate group conscious of its subordination and articulating this feeling to the dominant group, then “their own relative good fortune,” it is felt, “should disqualify them as critics in this case.”
If it were true that someone’s good fortune or historical privilege disqualifies him or her as a critic of lesser privileged groups, then we could understand the claim that even good arguments against same-sex marriage should not be made when members of the subordinate class, namely those desirous of same-sex marriage, “are already vulnerable on other counts.” On this account, good arguments might be persuasive, but persuasion is a “species of power.” Consequently, by refusing to allow the dominant group to argue, the subordinate group sees itself as “standing up for … autonomy,” for its dignity and right to be respected.
Collini’s description of contemporary offense partially explains, it seems, the phenomenon discussed by Franck: even if there are good arguments against same-sex marriage, they are “disqualified” as hateful and bigoted when they are made by a historically dominant group. The better the arguments, the more offensive the position, it is thought, and the more that position must not be considered, but instead be subjected only to scorn by all thinking persons of good will.
This standoff followed by ceasefire presents a dilemma. On the one hand, arguments made against the positions and actions of the disadvantaged require special care and caution so as to avoid that unjust reality where public reason masks a power ploy, even if implicitly and unintentionally so. Fair argument demands, at the least, frank discourse among equal partners, but equality can be made difficult by history; equality can be subverted by frankness when one appeals to general consensus at the expense of the powerless.
On the other hand, Collini is correct that taking offense should “be regarded as initiating a reasoned argument rather than foreclosing on one.” In fact, if offense is a demand for equal respect, then argument should follow on offense, “for how does respect exist except in the company of critical judgment?” To pretend that those who are mistaken are either correct or are “too fragile or too touchy or too stupid to bear reasoned disagreement is to condescend to them … is precisely not to treat them as equal adults.”
Collini’s defense of criticism rejects the primacy of identity politics with its “defining error” of acting “as though one characteristic over-rides all others, thereby homogenizing those who possess it and imposing a binary separation from those who do not.” It is not membership in particular communities based on race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation that matters most, for the “most important identity we can acknowledge in another person is the identity of being an intelligent reflective human being.” All persons are “potentially capable of understanding the grounds for any action or statement that concerns us.” Treating others as “reflective intelligent individuals not wholly reducible to being members of any one community” is not a Western or liberal standard; it is a human one. Any other standard, he claims, treats the other with condescension, as below us. Treating others with respect can require great effort, but exempting others from criticism is not respectful.
There is, Collini argues, a “right to be offended,” and using offense to end criticism “may not only deny the rights of the speaker—it may deny the rights of the listener as well.” Humans reveal their humanity in their ability to offer justification for their actions and beliefs, and to exempt an individual or group from the requirement to justify themselves reveals contempt, even if benignly intended.
Nonetheless, it remains the case, as Franck describes, that some individuals or groups reject arguments against their position merely because those arguments are made now (when we should know better given our knowledge of historical disadvantage) by them (the powerful) against us (the powerless), and indignation and offense are thought legitimate and autonomous responses. How, then, are we to defend criticism when it contributes, or is perceived to contribute, to unfairness?
The key realization is that offense operates within the realm of reason. When I am offended, I have not simply felt resentment, nor merely intuited a wrong; I have performed a cognitive act, namely, judging based on what seem to me to be good and understandable reasons for that act of judging. Whenever we make a judgment of fact (x is) or value (x ought to be), we commit ourselves to the truth and worth of our judgment. To do otherwise disqualifies us from reasonable discussion, as there would be no reason to be taken seriously if we did not claim that our judgment had worth.
Fair criticism aims at truth, at a judgment of what is the case. Offense also demonstrates a commitment to the truth, and thus both criticism and offense share a commitment to truth as an intrinsically valuable aim of human action. Both the critic and the offended party, then, seek truth as a value, and their seeking of truth demonstrates that truth is valuable for everyone like themselves, that is, for all humans. Consequently, both criticism and offense judge truth to be a human good. This judgment also claims that truth is a good for beings like oneself, and so to pursue truth through criticism is to demonstrate that one believes the other is equal to oneself and to wish a good for them—which is a kind of friendship.
Consequently, (1) to take offense is to make a truth claim that one asserts as serious, as does offering criticism; (2) to make a judgment is to claim that truth is good and worth attaining, and it is impossible to seriously deny this without contradiction; (3) to judge that truth is a good is to claim that it is a good for those equal to you; (4) to criticize, and to take offense at that criticism, is to claim that others are your equals and are benefitted by the same goods as you; (5) to criticize is a mark of friendship, which is itself a condition of ethical discourse.
As Franck highlights, we find ourselves in a strange situation when argument is considered unreasonable. I can sympathize with those communities that view themselves as subordinate, and I can understand why they might resent arguments and criticisms made from the majority culture, but to comply with their request for equality in the way they have requested it would be to render them unequal, and that is a wicked thing to do.
R. J. Snell is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University.