Offence and Ridicule

There seems to be this great taboo against criticising the thoughts and beliefs of others lest others get offended. Someone can believe the moon is made of mouldy cake or that mathematics was invented by sentient jetpacks last Tuesday. Are you allowed to titter at their stupid beliefs behind their backs? Of course! How else do you think society works? Are you allowed to openly disagree with them? No, we can't have that - no matter if they're just plain fucking wrong or, worse, passing that wrongness on where people can't disagree with it, you can't rebut them because to do so would be offensive. And there's nothing worse in the world than offence, is there? Not paedophilia; not indoctrination; not even plain old stupidity. Offence is the worst of them all.

If you can't tell that that last sentence was sarcastic, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog.

As you can probably tell, I have some quibbles with this whole idea that not giving offence comes above telling people what's what. It rests on a couple of flawed ideas: that opinions are above criticism simply because they're opinions and moreover that opinions are more important than fact. Neither are true: as I hope to show you, there is no reason for opinions to be beyond criticism and many reasons why they should not be, and opinions cannot be more important than fact - for example, gravity still exists regardless of what opinions we hold about it. In other words, what we believe about the universe (opinions) does not determine the features of this universe (facts). Putting opinions before facts would therefore be putting the cart before the horse. (I apologise if all this seems obvious to you, or if it seems like I'm insulting your intelligence, but some people need this spelled out for them.)

So this idea that not giving offence is paramount is, as I hope to have shown, a bit stupid. But it's not just stupid - it's also downright harmful. Rather than go through the hard, messy work of actually learning to understand and connect with other people and of learning to think an idea through critically, it papers over the cracks in arguments and societies lest someone's sensibilities get hurt. That's not just daft, it's downright harmful. Ideas are refined through being pitted against each other; ties are made and broken through discussions where people disagree. Without criticism and disagreement, you can learn nothing - and I've got first-hand knowledge of this. The times when I have learned most are when I've asked questions, when I've been critical, when I've stepped outside of my intellectual comfort zone, and when I've been ripped a new one through my own stupidity. Were these pleasant experiences? Not necessarily - some were distinctly humiliating. Did I learn from them and hopefully become a better person? Undoubtedly so.

It also assumes that offence being taken is such a bad thing that that's the end of the story - which isn't true, as I hope my example shows - and that therefore all precautions must be taken to avoid giving offence. That's utter bullshit; offence isn't the worst thing in the world, for a start. I'd rather be offended by something than be assaulted, for instance. Moreover, people are capable of giving intelligent responses to something offensive (and I am loath to admit this due to my crushing misanthropy); for example, if someone says something stupid about, say, atheists, I might get offended, but I won't scream and cry that because the statement is offensive it shouldn't be allowed. Offensive speech harms no-one and is not hate speech, so it can stay. In any case, it would be a chance to rebut the person's arguments and hopefully show them where they've gone wrong. In this situation, the person might actually learn something - better than papering over the disagreements so a person learns nothing.