Is offence objective or subjective?

The whole Jordan Peterson malarky has spawned a rich seam of comment. Did he win the debate against Cathy Newman or not? Was he advocating an Evangelical worldview or one of many secular positions? Is he a friend/ally of Evangelicals or not? You can read some back and forth here by following the various links.

In one post, my friend Dave Williams urged us not to consider Jordan Peterson a friend of Evangelicalism and argued that Peterson held to a subjective worldview. You can read Dave’s comment here. I, in response, argued that perhaps Peterson didn’t make the comments Dave had hoped because he might hold my view that offence is subjective. Well, Dave has now dedicated an entire post to arguing that offence is, in point of fact, objective. You can read that here. This post is my answer to him.

Dave paints a few scenarios and asks whether it was legitimate for someone to take offence under the circumstances. This leads him to the following points:

There are times when I say something that may have true content in it but I may say it in an offensive way. This, I would suggest is different from a right to ridicule.

There are times when I say something that is just offensive. My intent is to offend not to help and the offence is in both the untruthfulness of what I am saying and the spiteful way I say it.

There are times when I say things that are not intended to cause offence and aren’t said in an offensive way but the other person chooses to take offence. The sad thing is that this often happens and as Peterson points out in the interview, when we seek the truth we take a risk that others will take offence.

The problem with the scenarios Dave paints is that they directly undercut his position. I, of course, have a view on whether the scenarios he paints are offensive or not. But I determine those based on how I would respond in those circumstances according to a series of factors, including my personal sense of the intention of the individual, socially agreed conventions, whether it contravenes any morally objective values amongst other things. The issue is not that objective moral values do not exist (they definitely do), it is whether offence – as pertaining to my sensibilities – are also objective.

Dave’s examples rest on certain criteria that are, in point of fact, not objective. Having been a teacher, I have run up against the very scenarios he paints. It is absolutely the case that a teacher from the 1970s would answer the questions Dave puts very differently to one in the 2010s. My wife is the archivist at a historic school and the old record cards are notably different from what one would expect today. Clearly one generation found offensive what another didn’t. This, by definition, tells us their offence was subjective.

Dave goes on to paint a scenario regarding a pub on match day. One doesn’t have to be an able student of history to recognise the scenario he paints. Nor does one have to be particularly culturally aware to notice that a casual observer from the 1970s would answer all of those various pub-based scenarios quite differently than one in the 2010s. There was a time that many saw no problem putting signs in their shop windows that read, ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’. You would be hard pressed to do that today without seriously upsetting a lot of people. This, likewise, tells me offence is subjective.

What is more, what happens when we compare the reaction of the average modern Brit with the same scenario faced in China, Iran, Pakistan, America or France? We suddenly find a range of views across the world even when we don’t transport ourselves to a different era. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the girl told to simmer down in the classroom would not only be considered self-evidently right but they would even query her right to be in the classroom at all. The scenario of the pub depends on where we live too. Some places would see no problem with segregation – they do it in their religious buildings and schools all the time – while others are horrified by it. The offence is entirely subjective.

Beyond all this, of course, we have to make a distinction between moral issues and matters of offence. We all like to think we are only offended by matter of objective morality, our offence marrying up perfectly with matters of objective wrongness. Of course, that is demonstrably not true.

I, for example, can readily acknowledge certain acts as morally wrong because scripture tells me they are sinful. I believe in objective moral values because I believe in a God from whom they flow. Nonetheless, disregarding those objective moral values does not always offend me. I am not offended when I meet Muslim people who fail to acknowledge Jesus Christ as God incarnate. This is objectively wrong; it is not objectively offensive. Likewise, I am often offended by matters that are morally neutral. I find, for example, the music pumped out boy bands fairly offensive. They are not – no matter how hard I argue – inherently and objectively morally problematic. Even if you disagree with my assessment of their music, consider the same with respect to any number of things that just hack you off and upset you. I appreciate the things I find offensive are simply not the things someone else does.

Ultimately, Dave argues ‘if I believe that offence is subjective then… I will focus on how the person feels’. But, of course, offence is how a person feels; it is defined as, ‘causing someone to feel resentful, upset, or annoyed’. Unless we believe these feelings are objective, we are forced to conclude offence is subjective. What causes you to become resentful, upset or annoyed will not be the same for me. It is not an objective thing. When somebody is offended, they are offended because they feel offended. By definition, this is subjective.

What Dave wants to be able to do is to say that some people have no right to be offended under certain circumstances. He wants to say that there are certain reactions that are inappropriate. The problem is the question of who determines what a proper reaction is? Who is the arbiter of objective offence? Who decides exactly when it is, and isn’t, appropriate to be upset or distressed by something?

What Dave wants to be able to say is that there are right and wrong emotional reactions to things. That is certainly, sometimes, true. But the basis of that is whether those particular reactions are sinful or not. Offence is only an inappropriate reaction if and when it stems from sin. It is possible to be offended by something I am not upset about and yet your offence not to be driven by sin. You, for example, might be offended by somebody’s tone of voice when I find nothing objectionable in it at all. One person perceives a harsh tone while another simply perceives facts being stated. The offence is purely in the ear of the beholder.

The answer is not to pretend that offence is objective. The answer is to accept that the cost of living in a free society is that we might be offended. The risk we run in personal relationships is that we might be offended. There is an element at which we can accept that offence is a choice we make; we choose to find things offensive and we can choose not to do so. One person’s offensive comment is another’s robust debate; one person’s offensive tone is another’s gentle word; one person’s offensive action is another person’s neutral choice.

It is interesting that scripture acknowledges this fact. More often than not, it cautions us against taking offence. Where it does deal with the offence of others, it acknowledges there is little we can do about how they feel in certain scenarios (cf. Rom 12:18); we can only live peaceably so far as it depends on us. Whilst we ought to be careful not to give unnecessary offence, this presumes that there will be times people are offended and this is not objective.