Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Lie of Offence?

I hear many things on the internet which often seem blown out of all proportion. One such story that grabbed my attention is this story of a professor being censured by New York University for being deliberately politically incorrect. He has been deemed to be offensive to the underlying received philosophy of the university.

There are three ideas behind what we mean by "offence"; it is the opposite of defence; it is an illegal act; it is a perceived personal insult. The essence in these three ideas is that of active opposition whether justified or not. For someone to take offence means that an action is perceived to be an active opposition to their views as an attack and thus feel that they have a position to defend.

The professor in question has said that does not support the idea that people should have a "safe space" in which people can be protected from "uncomfortable speech". He also objects to people being allowed to choose any alternative pronoun. The key to understanding the nature of what is offensive is in what it is saying about a person's worth.

Each of us has some set of values that we hold dear. The fact is that, given some value judgment, there is always another value judgment that goes against that. We hold different values. This can be as trivial as the rating of football teams and as serious as valuations of other human beings. The moment that two different value judgments come together spawns debate, controversy, and even demonisation. Offence comes when someone makes a statement that trivialises something we hold dear or denies something that we hold to be fundamentally true.

The trouble is that our preoccupation with abstract things such as rights, duties, privileges, and entitlements tears us away from a deeper truth that we are in discussion with another human being. Human beings disagree: this is why some form of government that permits a forum is vitally necessary in the West. It is when that discussion is shut down by people who cannot listen to what they deem to be offensive that causes the system to break down.

In recent years, there have been calls to be allowed to criticise, even ridicule, religious beliefs. The modern secularists state that our beliefs should not be immune from criticism by anyone. I quite agree. I believe that anyone can be allowed to speak out against the Church. In so doing, they can and often do reveal our shortcomings and hypocrises by measuring us up to the standard we preach. That I see as a true instrument of God's grace that He can speak to us through any of His children whether they believe in Him or not. That's not to say that it's easy listening sometimes.

I recently lost a friend on Facebook to my sorrow, because I stated that while I respected her veganism, I was not going to become one. She could not believe that I held the welfare of the unborn as a more pressing concern than that of animals going to the slaughter.  Of course, I want both! However, human beings require salvation from the evil that they propagate while animals do not.

I expect that I have just said something offensive. If you are offended, then why? What is at the heart of your offence?That I apparently don't care as much about animals and the planet as you do? If you are offended, then I'm proud of you because you actually bother to care about something, but what are you going to do with your offence? Hate me? Am I now that loathsome and incapable of doing any good ever in your eyes?

At the heart of our offence is something that we believe is not allowed to be opposed, should always be kept safe, and protected at any cost. This is noble, but it does mean that we are clinging on to something which will be broken or damaged or wounded. There are things that should offend each of us, and they should all be motivated by that most basic of human capacities - Love.

We have a love for animals, for protecting the unborn, the poor, the destitute, the despised, the broken, the marginalised. This is the testament to the innate good within each and every human being - they care about something! Yet, we disagree on what is best for these vulnerable beings. One person stands up for transgender rights; another disagrees but seeks to help those who suffer from what he believes to be a gender focussed dysmorphia.

I am a Catholic, and many people will take offence even at that. There are Roman Catholics who would deny me that because I'm not Roman. There are Protestants who would regard me as a minion of Satan himself. Rather than seek peace, they will shriek and denounce and hurl insults and spew rhetoric. I can't agree with them, and often I find myself foolishly engaged in arguments with them. I have come to the conclusion that such arguments don't get anywhere. Debate is fine in Oxbridge debating societies, but if we are to convince people that we are right, then we had better'd live out our beliefs fully and well thought through.

There is a big difference in not wanting to read an account of World War II Concentration Camps because of the terrible experiences of a beloved family member rather than refusing to do so because Fascism is offensive. To stifle debate, discussion and conversation prevents us from moving forward. If anything this is why Brexit and Mr Trump winning the presidential election came as a shock to the media. Brexit voters and Trump supporters were too scared of revealing their thoughts because of the shrill, aggressive behaviour of their opponents. That rioting has been taking place in the US shows that some people have forgotten the art of discussion in respect for the opposing position.

I see that behaviour even in the Anglican Catholic Church. I was deeply offended by the picture in one of our papers of two children holding a banner saying "Abortion kills children". I was offended because it made no mention of mothers, that children were being involved in a largely political protest, and that they were also engaged in that shrill mike-dropping put-downs which demonise others and shut out debate. Of course, I am pro-life and deeply committed to the protection of unborn babies and their mothers, but I seek to find ways of preventing the need for abortion from arising in the first place, not by demonising the vulnerable. Yes I was offended, even by my own church, but I love my church and think that the whole business of offence lies in Satan's desire to keep people separated so that the spread of God's love and grace can be stymied.

The Lie that Offence engenders is that the opposing voice is so demonic that it should not be heard. There is some truth in that: Our Lord shut the mouths of demons. So did St Paul for that matter. There are some truly offensive ideas out there, but the only way that the universality of that offense can be revealed is for it to be heard in full, its motives exposed, its ramifications probed. Yet, if the account of Job is to teach us anything, even Satan gets to have his say in God's Heavenly court.

We need to be charitable with our opponents and remember that Love does not insist on its own way. Our goal is to live in Truth AND Love. The two cannot be separated. When we engage with our opponent, we must see another human being: in fact, Our Lord would have us see our own sibling, or parent, or child in the person of our opponent.

When we are offended, we must check our pride first and see that we are not holding on to something in preference to God Himself. We need to be able to look into the eyes of our opponents and recognise not only ourselves within them, but also Our Lord Jesus Christ. Our words can be hard or cutting at times, especially when we are using the truth, but if we are working in God's love then this cutting will be seen as a way to grow further into God Himself. Let us stop burning bridges and build them to be stronger instead so that traffic can pass from side to side and thus draw us closer.

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