Sunday, October 22, 2023

Emily McTernan's "On Taking Offence"

Emily McTernan is a political philosopher and an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, University College London.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, On Taking Offence, and reported the following:
On page 99, I address the relation between taking offence and blame. I consider whether taking offence might even be a form of blame on theories that see blame as a matter of modifying our relations, as protest, or as signalling our commitment to moral norms. Both blaming and taking offence can signal our commitment to certain norms, and both can protest our treatment and demand acknowledgement of our standing.

But there is also a crucial dissimilarity: offence is primarily about social, and not moral, matters. Offence is taken at an affront to our social standing as we perceive it. In the preceding chapters, I have defended taking offence as one way to stand up for one’s social standing. So, taking offence does protest another’s treatment of us, and makes a claim for acknowledgement of standing, but of our social standing. I have argued that taking offence also often signals our commitment to, but sometimes rejection of, particular social norms, especially around what is appropriate around here or what is expected behaviour: regarding what is rude, disrespectful or improper, as compared to what demonstrates respect and consideration.

These social norms have moral and political significance. They enable us to behave in ways that can be understood to express respect and consideration, as Cheshire Calhoun, Amy Olberding and Sarah Buss have argued. But they also very often pattern our social interactions in ways that realise inequalities in social standing. Offence, I have argued in earlier chapters, is socially valuable because it can sometimes resist, in a small but potent way, such unequal patterning of social relations. Offence sometimes reinforces, but can sometimes renegotiate, the underlying social norms.

The two practices of offence and blame then run in parallel, but they are not the same, I conclude on page 99. We do sometimes both blame and take offence: some transgressions of social norms about what it is acceptable to say or do are also transgressions of moral norms given the kind, degree, or target of the disrespect involved. But we need not take the other party to be blameworthy in order to take offence: page 99 offers the cases of the offence caused by online chatbots, young children, and the innocently offensive. This echoes the broader theme of the chapter that to determine whether offence is justified what counts is not the offending party’s intentions or intended meaning but, rather, how their act functions in its broader social context: does it, or does it not, affront someone’s sense of their social standing.

When I first turned to page 99, I initially thought the test failed to tell the reader much about the book. The page appears in the fourth chapter where, after three chapters analysing what offence is and does and making the case for its positive value, I address some potential limits on justified offence-taking. The remaining chapters then proceed to examine offensive comedy, offence-taking and its regulation on social media, and when taking offence is a civic virtue. The page’s discussion of the relation between blame and offence, while addressing whether we need to be blameworthy for what we have done in order for another to justifiably be offended by it, appears as a minor aside.

Yet it turns out that in this aside some key themes of the book do emerge: that offence is a potent piece of our social interactions, one that resists another’s affront and signals to others too that we ought not be treated or regarded like that. As a result, I argue in the book, taking offence can be a good thing: it is a way to negotiate our social standing and the patterning of everyday inequalities. Sometimes, to take offence can be an act of insubordination against a social hierarchy.
Visit Emily McTernan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue