On Taking Offence

Currently, I am finishing a book (under contract with OUP), entitled On Taking Offence. You can listen to a podcast interview about it, or read its first chapter 

The book aims to rehabilitate taking offence. Rather than addressing the question familiar from jurisprudence of whether the state ought to regulate offensive behaviour, On Taking Offence asks the philosophically neglected question of whether we ought to take offence and, if so, when and within what limits. Against the widespread popular perception of offence as a civic vice, the book defends taking offence as often morally appropriate and socially important. Within societies marred by hierarchies of unequal social standing, and when taken by those who face systematic attributions of lower social standing, an inclination to take offence at the right things and to the right degree may even be a civic virtue.

This is a defence not of public shaming, which the book argues has little connection to taking offence properly understood, but of the often small in scale offence that ought to be recognisable from our ordinary social interactions. I do not adopt Joel Feinberg’s influential account of offence in jurisprudence, which includes any disliked state that is resented and wrongfully caused, from disgust to annoyance. Instead, this book examines an everyday but distinctive emotion of offence, the same as that studied by linguists; the emotion that you might experience, to varying degrees, when someone pushes in front of you in a queue, puts you down in front of your boss, ignores rather than shakes your outstretched hand, or makes a sexist joke. That is, the offence we take when someone offers an affront to our social standing as we perceive it. While sometimes offence pushes us to break off relations with the offending party, often our estrangement is expressed through acts as small and temporary as raising an eyebrow, or pointedly not laughing at a joke.

It is the way in which taking offence negotiates social standing in everyday contexts that this book defends as morally and politically significant. A central idea is that to take offence is to resist another’s affront to one’s standing and, in so doing, to stand up for one’s social standing and, often, that of one’s group. In taking offence, someone marks another’s act as one ignoring, diminishing, or attacking her standing. Where her offence is visible, she also communicates her rejection of the affront to others. Further, taking offence can be to negotiate the background social norms that enable us to express and shape social standing. Sometimes, to take offence sanctions those who transgress against shared norms: to offend others is often socially costly. At other times, taking offence makes a bid to change the shared norms around respectful treatment, either by contesting the social meaning of the norm, say, as expressing disrespect where it had been seen as respectful treatment, or by proposing a new norm through acting as if there is different norm in play that another transgresses against.

As a result, the book argues that taking offence can be an act of direct insubordination against a social hierarchy. When taken by those deemed to have less social standing within that hierarchy, and especially when taken at a familiar affront to standing, to be offended is to resist the ordinary patterning of socially unequal relations. The book’s defence of offence will be of that taken at precisely such apparently trivial and small-scale details of social interactions – and so the very form that its opponents find most objectionable.