Taking offence: a new pandemic?

From Rhodes’ statue to radical speakers, the young and old understand, and cope with, offence differently, argues Felipe Fernández-Armesto

February 18, 2016
David Humphries illustration (18 February 2016)
Source: David Humphries

I like to be hated. It is – to paraphrase Mae West – better than being overlooked. I like insults. The indignation of an enemy is flattering. Nasty observations about my work or character shake me out of complacency and may even suggest room for improvement. I am grateful when lampoons, satires, mimicry and mockery target me, especially if they are amusing. I can do nothing about it, of course, if someone makes rude remarks about my religion, or the legitimacy of my birth, or the charmlessness of my face (which, I must confess, does resemble a frog’s). Even so, I never take offence, but silently, secretly relish my power to provoke an interlocutor to a disclosure of his or her own idiocy. To be offended would merely be to match one folly with another.

I find it baffling, therefore, that giving offence – even unintentionally or, in Cecil Rhodes’ case, through the mists of time – has become a cause of scandal in modern universities. A university teacher’s career can be interrupted or ended by the mere imputation of offence by absurdly oversensitive audiences. In a notorious recent case, Erika Christakis withdrew from lecturing at Yale University because, explicitly disavowing any desire to provoke, she had the temerity to suggest that the university did not need to ban turbans, grass skirts, Mohican haircuts, or other ethnically resonant forms of disguise at fancy dress festivities. Apparently, however, some people in need of grievance misinterpret costume-party motley as conscious mockery. Don’t wear a pirate outfit in case there’s a one-eyed guest to take it personally. Don’t don ginger whiskers, which may seem insulting to the ruddy-visaged and hirsute. Don’t dress up as a Flower Fairy in case homosexuals mistake the homage to Cicely Barker. Avoid a Harlequin mask, which may be simultaneously injurious both to black guests and white. Take off that Donald Duck suit, which is disrespectful to ducks. No stetsons or cowboy boots, please: we mustn’t appropriate the cowboys’ culture. No red noses unless you’re a card-carrying clown or approved alcoholic. James Ramsey, the president of the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, apologised to Latino students after he attended a Halloween party in a stereotypically Mexican poncho and sombrero.

“I wonder,” Christakis wrote, according to The New York Times, “is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or…offensive?”

Students protested. Christakis resigned. Even her husband, who is master of Silliman College at Yale, has had to take a previously unscheduled sabbatical. A video posted on YouTube shows a female student – who became known as the “shrieking girl” – apparently blaming him for not controlling his wife: she shouts down his courteous attempts to explain, abuses him with a shrieked series of vicious expletives, calls him “disgusting” and tells him that he “should not sleep at night”. He listens with clasped hands and polite impassivity.

The young, it seems, can give offence without hesitation, even if they are incapable of taking it. The difference in standards of civility across the generations is bewildering. A recent Pew Research poll revealed that 40 per cent of millennials (those aged 18 to 34) want controls on speech “offensive” to minority groups. The University of Ottawa Student Federation’s Centre for Students with Disabilities recently announced that it would reinstate yoga classes after suspending a course over concerns that “cultural issues” relating to the class could offend students. The issues, the students explain, arise because people in yoga’s lands of origin “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy”. A student at Oklahoma Wesleyan University felt “victimised” by a college sermon that “made him feel bad for not showing love”. And a class at Washington State University will not tolerate “offensive language” including “referring to women/men as females or males”. Guest speakers are often banned or “disinvited” on the often unwarranted assumption that they may say something to offend somebody.

The UK is not exempt from the pandemic of offensivitis. Prior to the recent furore over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, the University of Warwick’s students’ union withdrew an invitation to the human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie, in case she should offend Islam.

Persecutions for offensiveness are pernicious because alleged victims are arbiters. With every other kind of supposed transgression, there has to be dolus or mens rea – a malign intention on the perpetrator’s part. If I strike you unintentionally in the course of an expensive gesture, you make allowances. But if you take unmeant offence at my yoga or sombrero you can smother my freedom of expression and hound me out of my job. How can we understand the inconsistency?

A historic transformation, a revolution in sensibilities, has happened, undetected, in recent years, opening a chasm of culture between my generation and the teens and twentysomethings in the classrooms. We understand offence differently and cope with it contrastingly. Oldies don’t take offence where none is intended, and make light of insensitivity when we meet it. We don’t respond with vengeful offensiveness of our own, or vilify, in outraged self-righteousness, those who fail to anticipate our expectations of respect or deference. We need to recommend our behaviour as consistent with justice and conducive to peace, so that in future, when insensitivity meets oversensitivity, the oversensitive do not overreact, and the insensitive do not lose livelihoods or liberty.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame in the US.

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