Friday, March 13, 2015

Taking offense and taking action

Protest march at OU. (Photo source: Legal Insurrection.)
When an unapologetically über-conservative man and a hard-core leftist woman agree on a point, you can almost bet your life savings the truth is in the opposite direction. Especially when the topic is “offense discourse”.

Steven Crowder’s argument is about machismo more than anything else. “Both men and women respect men who take ownership, men who take action. Choosing to ‘be offended’ is the epitome of inaction. Today’s ‘offended’ men are seen as wimpy simply because they are. Instead of harnessing whatever affront is facing them, instead of facing it head-on, dealing with the problem and coming out the other side a stronger man, the ‘modern’ male chooses to sulk, to whine, and inevitably call Gloria Steinem.” Plus, “chicks dig it” when you take action.

I’m not sure Katherine Cross would agree with that last assessment … or, for that matter, to being called a “chick”. However, she does agree that “offense discourse” leads to inaction:

It has to be one of the most significant rhetorical own-goals of the Left since the 1960s: allowing the word ‘offend’ to become the go-to way of describing the harms of prejudice. “This content offends me,” “your words are offensive,” “his conduct gave offence to x,” etc. What this has always facilitated is the commonplace reactionary response to such moral injunctions, defending some imagined noble right to give offense lardered [sic] with smug Stephen Fry image macros. Cue “free speech”’ arguments ad nauseam that resolve into garrulous nothingness. … It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.

Of the two arguments, Cross’ is the more fully developed. Crowder’s post amounts to little more than a couple of chest-thumps and an admonition to “put on your big-boy britches and deal with it”. Both arguments, however, are simply wrong, or at least not fully to the point.

Let’s take an ongoing situation: The city of San Francisco is up in arms because the Archdiocese issued a teacher’s handbook which includes detailed statements of Catholic teaching on sexual morality and religious practice. State lawmakers claim that the clauses “infringe on the civil rights of the schools’ employees”.

This provides us with a test case, because many people find certain aspects of Catholic morality offensive … or at least outdated. Said one student, “The bishop is going backwards when the Pope is going forwards with these types of issues. In recent years, the Pope has been an enormous progressive leader of the church when it came to very delicate issues that weren’t even talked about [no, not really … at least, not in the sense the student means]. And now, when there is promise, this archbishop is just setting us back.”

An equally recent episode takes us to Norman, Okla., where the local chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was shut down after a video appeared on YouTube showing pledges singing that “there will never be a n****r SAE”. Worse, the national organization is investigating reports that the chant has cropped up elsewhere, such as Louisiana Tech. (Interestingly, in his public apology, one student who voluntarily withdrew from OU said, “I didn’t say no, and I clearly dismissed an important value I learned at my beloved high school, Dallas Jesuit. We were taught to be ‘Men for Others.’”)

The first point to be abstracted is that offense didn’t bog down in inaction. If anything, retaliation in the second case was swift, sharp, and decisive; put differently, the national SAE’s decision to shut down the OU chapter and investigate other incidents embodies the manly qualities of a Theodore Roosevelt, who was no shrinking violet when offended by the incivility of others. OU’s decision to expel two of the leaders and sever ties with the national organization were equally rapid and unequivocal.

However, SAE is a private organization. No one has a “right” to belong to it; they’re free to eject or suspend members who transgress their bylaws. OU is a public university, and as such must maintain an academic atmosphere free from threats and hostility against any student. So far as there’s a “right” to attend OU, it isn’t absolute; very few rights, if any, are absolute.

If action in the first case is bound to fail, it’s because the surrounding legal context is different. For one thing, Catholic schools are by definition not public utilities; given sufficient cause — or even insufficient cause — Abp. Salvatore Cordileone could shut down all the Catholic schools in his archdiocese, and neither the state nor the city would have recourse to force them open again. (Not that the latter would want to.) For another, Catholic schools are protected by a growing body of case law which upholds the Church’s right to teach her moral doctrines in her schools whether or not the surrounding community is offended by them.

(For the record, on Feb. 6 Abp. Cordileone has stated in an open letter, “… I wish to state clearly and emphatically that the intention underlying [the statement in the handbook] is not to target for dismissal from our schools any teachers, singly or collectively, nor does it introduce anything essentially new into the contract or the faculty handbook.”)

In one sense, it’s as foolish to speak of a “right” to be offended as it is to speak of a “right” to fall in love or an “entitlement” to have a myocardial infarction. There are only two relevant questions: 1) Is the offense you take proportional to the cause? and 2) What do you intend to do about it?

In another sense, Cross shows at best an innocence of American political history — at worst, a startling disingenuity — when she asserts that the “offense discourse” ends in inaction. If anything, the left has been astoundingly successful at using “offensiveness” as an excuse to shut down opposing voices on campuses. In fact, if anything, the various civil rights movements are built upon and fueled by moral outrage.

Cross argues, “When we discuss being ‘offended’ we are, more often than not, talking about people being hurt in material ways.” But that’s not wholly true. It’s possible to discuss injustices in a clinically neutral fashion. It’s equally possible, however, for such dispassionate analysis to end in a shrug of acquiescence.

People don’t get their butts out of their La-Z-Boys and into the streets to man the barricades in fits of disinterested calm, as if they were working out propositions in Euclid. People fight what they perceive to be injustices because they’re offended by injustices. The only reason abortion has managed to survive as a right for these forty-two years is that half of America isn’t offended by it to any appreciable degree. If the “mushy middle” felt angered by abortion’s legality today, a Constitutional amendment forever proscribing it would be ratified by year’s end.

Cross concedes, “… [T]here is no way to guarantee that one will never be offended, and individual offense ought not be the yardstick by which we measure civil rights and liberties.” More than that: there’s no way to guarantee that no one will ever be harmed, that no one will ever feel unhappy, that no one will ever have to struggle to succeed, or that no one will ever believe they’ve been dealt with unfairly. As Sophocles says at the end of Oedipus the King, “We cannot call a mortal being happy before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.”

Does that mean we shouldn’t even try to balance the scales? Perish the thought. However, to give Crowder his due, there is some merit to the admonition to “cowboy up”: both men and women develop their fullest capacities through struggling and opposition, not through ease and comfort. Moreover, the only real way to change society is to change individual hearts; what we need is more compassion, not more outrage.

But if there’s a reason why the “offense discourse” ends in free speech arguments, it’s because the First Amendment was enacted to give all citizens, not just a self-selected elite, a voice in the public square. This includes discussions of what constitutes actionable harm, what constitutes a civil liberty or human right, what policies ought to be enacted or reversed. No one should expect a guarantee that they won’t be politically opposed.