Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Offense Gambit

     As any Gentle Reader who’s been following recent developments will know, the scream of “I’m offended!” has become a currency with which to purchase “protection” against disliked opinions, usually in the form of a “safe space” from which such opinions are forcibly excluded. Any number of commentators in the Right have orated on the perniciousness of this trend. The Left’s counter, which has largely gone unanswered, is that various persons have “a right not to be offended.” That claim is usually based on specific characteristics of the persons claiming the right.

     One of the things that made Jordan Peterson’s recent face-off with interviewer Cathy Newman a telling stroke was Dr. Peterson’s immediate riposte of Newman’s claim that transgender persons have “a right not to be offended.” The relevant snippet is below:

     Dr. Peterson clearly understands that a claim such as “a right not to be offended” is by its nature subjective, arbitrary, and unsustainable. He could have attacked Newman as an aspiring dictator, in the exact sense of that word: one who dictates what others must, may, and may not say. He chose not to do so. He elected a wiser course by far: he demonstrated to Newman how he could turn the claim against her should he so choose.

     Leftists haven’t received that sort of treatment nearly often enough.

     A contrasting article from Ben Shapiro about the interview pulls the matter into even brighter light. The relevant snippet:

     There’s heavy irony to the fact that Victorian prudishness of manners suddenly abounds on the same Left that champions wearing pussyhats and shouting its abortions. But it’s that Victorian prudishness that tends to win the day — or at least has, for the past several decades. Perhaps that’s because many on the right tend to value manners; good religious men and women studiously avoid causing offense if they have the capacity to do so. It’s worked, too. The Left has wielded the Right’s preference for manners as a club against the Right, claiming offense in order to cow them into silence.

     Of late, however, the Left has simply gone too far. No longer do they ask whether objectively offensive statements ought to be made; they now take each statement and ask whether it is subjectively offensive to anyone.

     The emphasized phrases exemplify why I have no great regard for Ben Shapiro. What can he possibly mean by “objectively offensive?” What metric would apply? What measuring instruments exist? It’s a fantasy, no more substantiable than the Left’s fantasy of “a right not to be offended.” But wait: there’s more!

     If the Left uses manners as a weapon, the logic goes, let’s just discard manners altogether. But there’s no reason to do that. We all ought to behave with decency and truth.

     Note the words “ought to,” which are the equivalent of my whipping boy “should.” These are words that don’t belong in a conversation about politics or public policy. They’re too slippery, and too loaded. They too easily give rise to “must,” “shall,” and “shall not:” the coercions of legislation.

     But that’s not all that’s wrong with the above. “Decency and truth,” eh? Whose definition of “decency” shall we apply? In what settings and contexts? Are privacy and private property relevant, or is any statement made by anyone at any time to any listeners in any gathering liable to collective disapproval?

     Then there’s “truth.” Freedom of speech must necessarily include the freedom to lie, at least as long as it doesn’t reach the level of actionable slander or libel. (It certainly must include the freedom to be mistaken, the odd notions of federal agents notwithstanding.) But who will stand up for that aspect of freedom of speech? Damned few orthodox conservatives. Certainly not Ben Shapiro.

Margaret More: Father, that man's bad.
Sir Thomas More: There's no law against that.
William Roper: There is: God's law.
Sir Thomas More: Then God can arrest him.
William Roper: While you talk, he's gone!
Sir Thomas More: And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law.
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

[From A Man For All Seasons]

     The intemperate are forever willing to “cut a great road though the law” to go after someone or something they deem “bad.” It’s not always the intemperate of the Left. Calls for “decency” emanating from the Right have done as much. Consider the early Twentieth Century “reformers’” campaigns for “decency” and “sobriety,” one and all the work of the time’s social conservatives. Their aims were widely approved...or at least, not widely disapproved. Persons who deemed another’s vices to be that other’s proper business – in the old phrase, to be “between him and God” — usually withheld their opinions, lest the “reformers” target them.

     Demagogues know that. A skilled demagogue can turn his target into “the enemy” even if the target is merely insufficiently enthusiastic about the demagogue’s nostrums. The Right has known as many demagogues as the Left, and ought to be reminded of the dangers they pose.

     Just now the demagogues most to be feared are on the Left, but that must not blind us to the possibilities of a “conservative” neo-Victorian fascism. After all, we’re just as easily offended as anyone alive, and just as susceptible to turning our “shoulds” and “should nots” into campaign of intimidation or a legislative agenda. Let’s stay well away from that chasm.

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