I find your offense offensive

July 29, 2010

Politicians and business leaders get in trouble for saying “offensive” things all the time.Whether it’s Tony Hayward talking about the “little people” or British politicians talking about “grave dodgers”, an offensive statement can end a career. But is that really deserved?

First of all, what exactly are we talking about when we mean “offensive”? According to a quick google:

  • causing anger or annoyance; “offensive remarks”
  • unsavory: morally offensive; “an unsavory reputation”; “an unsavory scandal”
  • dysphemistic: substitute a harsher or distasteful term for a mild one ; “`nigger’ is a dysphemistic term for `African-American'”
  • nauseating: causing or able to cause nausea; “a nauseating smell”; “nauseous offal”; “a sickening stench”


So if someone makes a statement that’s deemed “offensive”, that means that it is unsavory, distasteful, causes anger, and may on occasion induce vomiting. Okay, good.

Another question: what importance exactly does this have? In other words, how important is it that something not cause anger?

THis requires a brief discussion of psychology, specifically mechanisms of “empathizing” and “systematizing”. systematizing is the basic mental process that lets us make a “mental model” of our world. The brain’s systematizing systems are responsible for predicting events, pattern recognition, and logical problem-solving. However, the brain also has a second “modeling” system–the empathetic system–which is focused on predicting the thoughts, actions, and emotions of other people.

These distinctions are evident in the ways people communicate and interact with each other. Most interactions among friends and acquaintances are “empathizing-focused”, that is, the goal is to generate good feelings in the other person and oneself. When one is playing a video game with another person, the objective is not merely to achieve the goal of the video game, but also to enjoy the other person’s company.

A smaller subset of interactions are “systemizing-focused”. In these cases, the goal relates to solving some problem. The internal states of the people interacting are considered irrelevant to the quality of the interaction(which is determined by whether the external goal–solving an engineering challenge, writing an article, having a debate–is achieved or not). In some cases, such as debate, the participants assume conflicting stances or are in conflict with each other.

Interestingly, in most cases where someone’s statement is called “offensive”, it’s in the context of a systemizing-type interaction–usually a discussion about some social or political issue. Remember the defintion of “Offensive” though. Nowhere does is state that an “offensive” statement cannot be a good solution for a systematizing problem. It states that offense causes disgust, anger, and annoyance–all of which would be things to avoid in an “empathizing” interaction, but which are irrelevant in a systematizing one. In other words:

Calling a serious statement offensive is the result of incorrectly applying norms for an empathizing interaction to a systematizing interaction

The problem is that pointing at someone and saying “you’re offensive” carries substantial weight, especially in politics. Because people are wired to make decisions based on a rapid assessment of other’s character, an empathizing attack, even though it carries no logical weight, can still cause substantial loss of public support. When a Labor Party candidate in the UK called old people “coffin dodgers” during a discussion on social security, he was forced by his party to step down. The fact that he used the term “coffin dodgers”, while offensive, has no impact on the validity of his actual policies, which were promptly ignored. Essentially, the “offensive” attack allows an opponenet to take exploit the human bias to make political decisions based on perceived character traits.

But wait! You might be saying, “if a politician(or anyone) makes a statement like that, they’re showing their true colors! That obviously means that he’s going to discriminate against old people in his social security legislation!” To that, I would offer an anecdote of something that happened to me in seventh grade, when a classmate decided to regale me with the most damaging of middle-school insults:

“Your backpack’s hella gay” he said

Though a knew a little about gender identities and whatnot, I had never heard that used as an insult. What does that mean? I wondered. Had he observed my backpack in a compromising situation with another backpack of the same sex? How does one sex a backpack anyway? Do backpacks have a gender binary? How many chromosomes do they have?

“How is it gay?” I asked him

“It’s kind of stupid looking” he replied

“And that’s like…gay people are stupid looking?”

“No…not really” he said

As it turned out, he was basically using the term “gay” for the same reason he was using the adjective “hella”–because, people adopt the terms, accents, etc. that are used by the people around them. Does this mean that he thought that there was inherently anything wrong with gay people? No, it was just a case of linguistic ambiguity–that the term “gay” could, in that situation, mean either “homosexual”, or “stupid”, without any necessary link from one to the other. Such an effect probably occurs frequently–keep in  mind, that, for many things, terms that used to be inoffensive are now considered offensive, with new terms replacing them. So if someone slips and talks about “street people” instead of saying “people without residence”, does it mean they have a deep-seated hatred for homeless people? No, it probably just means that they learned the earlier term.

Is it possible that people use offensive statements because they actually have negative feelings about some group of people? Absolutely. But calling people out for being offensive probably still does more harm than good. Why? The number of people who are significantly affected by making an offensive statement is almost certainly far less than the number of people who are racist/ableist/ageist/whatever. Don’t believe me? Go to Project Implicit and take a few of the tests(preferably ones that you have never really expressed an opinion about). Chances are, at least one of them will show you have some unconcious bias. So by destroying the careers of people who advertise their bias, critics create an effect called “artificial selection”. In other words, they’re helping make politicians more sleazy by eliminating the ones who are more likely to actually show their biases.

In short, making an offensive statement has little to no predictive value–the ability to actually indicate something material about what a political candidate would do if office, but labeling something as offensive, despite having no relevance in a serious discussion context, can dramatically affect the outcomes of elections by tapping into voters irrationality.


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