against "offensive"

I do not watch the Olympics. But I do follow the culture war outrage industrial complex, and this week the two have intersected. The proximate cause of this collision was the above tweet from New York Times editor Bari Weiss. Apparently American figure skater Mirai Nagasu did something really great. But apparently she is not an immigrant. She was born in California to Japanese immigrant parents.

Many were insulted by Weiss's tweet. When someone pointed out on Twitter that Nagasu was not an immigrant, she responded that she "felt the poetic license was appropriate." Fair enough, I suppose. The quote was from the musical Hamilton and there is no corresponding line in the show about first-generation Americans. But beyond the factual matter, many were offended by what they believed to be Weiss's presumptions about Nagasu. They let her know on Twitter, and there Weiss did not necessarily react graciously. She responded by suggesting that the strong reactions to her initial message constituted a "sign of civilization's end" and eventually deleted the tweet.

At the Huffington Post, Asian Voices editor Kimberly Yam quoted Asian-American supermodel Chrissy Teigen's tweet to explain why some were upset at this characterization of Nagasu. "It’s called perpetual otherism or perpetual foreigner syndrome. No one is ashamed of the word immigrant but it’s tiring being treated as foreigners all the time."

Yam agreed, pointing out that "the pervasive stereotype" of Asian foreignness "leads many people of color to feel their American identity is constantly being questioned, or even erased." Moreover, she argues, this stereotype has real consequences in terms of hate crimes and government suspicion and surveillance.

In The New Republic, Irene Hsu and Sharon Zhang offer another reason why the tweet provoked such strong responses. In their view, it perpetuates the "good immigrant" myth. This presumption suggests that it is meritocracy, rather than simple human decency, that justifies our attitudes toward immigration. In other words, immigration policy "works" if it (eventually) produces superstars like Nagasu. Hsu and Zhang reject that notion, claiming that "the United States owes it to immigrants and people of color to commit to humane immigration policies, with or without hypothetical Olympians and would-be inspirational figures."

For my own part, I find the diagnoses offered by these writers to be compelling accounts of the particular problems that face Asian-Americans today. But I am not certain that this particular tweet—or maybe any tweet—should bear so much weight. Weiss's reaction to the criticism did not impress me and I have no interest in determining if her initial post was "really" insulting. But I am interested in the form taken by the outraged reaction itself.

For this largely inconsequential social media brouhaha, which will most likely have passed its sell-by date in the times it takes me to write and post these musings, is but an example of a larger trend. And I do not refer to the vogue for getting all worked up over something as ephemeral and inconsequential as a tweet. (Though, of course, it is that.) Instead, I am interested in it as yet another example of the fact that the emotional quality of being offended serves as the barometer of a particular thought's political valence.

This trend exists on the left and the right. I'm not aware of many conservatives describing themselves as being offended, but I cannot think of a more appropriate word to describe the feeling of being put out at the fact that football players are kneeling while the national anthem is playing. I am more aware of progressives using the actual word "offensive," though, and my anecdotal impression would be that they are more comfortable identifying themselves as being offended. (Being offended is not a terribly macho pose to strike, and conservatives tend to like macho.) And I think that wielding offense in this manner is a terrible development. It is intellectually flabby and politically weak.

Because when push comes to shove, declaring a comment to be offensive means little more than that the speaker is offended by it. And offense is not an emotion that is worthy of all that much respect. (This is, of course, an overstatement. Philosopher Joel Feinberg has pointed out that issues related to causing offense are nothing if not complicated. But with all appropriate caveats I generally stand by it.) Certainly there is a time and place for everything, but by and large progressives do not care if someone is offended by artistic depictions of sex, or by religious blasphemy, or by behavior that disrespects the flag. So clearly offense in and of itself is not the issue. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to respect the fact that someone is offended only when we believe that the reaction is justified. So if it is something else that bothers the progressive mind, let's figure out what it is and talk about that.

In that regard, my favorite piece about the Bari Weiss tweet came from Shadi Hamid at the Atlantic. "Perhaps Weiss should have acknowledged the hurt she caused and apologized," he wrote, "but the premise behind this suggestion is itself problematic: Just because hundreds of people found something offensive doesn’t mean that it was, in fact, offensive." His larger argument concerns identity politics, but I was most interested in his point about the politics of offense. Because I would take it a step further than Hamid does, and say that there is in fact no meaningful political content attached the word "offensive."

Philosophically, I would disagree with Hamid's actual statement that offending lots of people does not make something offensive. What other test could be more relevant? (In perhaps a less charged example, what would constitute something being "infuriating" other than the quality of making people angry?) The fact that some people might be offended by something that does not offend others does make this question more complicated. But clearly a statement could not be offensive if no one at all had ever been offended by it. I suppose that one could argue that people should be offended by it. But then clearly offensive would not mean "the capacity to make people feel offended." So what what do we mean when we use this word? If we mean that our emotional reaction is merely a response to a quality of the offending remark, then we should isolate and define that quality rather than talking about how we feel in response to hearing it. Such considerations quickly lead us down a path that ends in an early Platonic dialogue.

But I do not want to find the correct meaning of the term "offensive." Rather than the Platonic approach, I want to make the Rortyan move of urging that we abandon the term entirely. It is my belief that in calling something "offensive," a person is trying to turn a debatable position into an irrefutable one. If I claim to be offended, then a) no one can tell me I am wrong about that, and b) your statement was offensive. But this also removes the position from the realm of the political (where we can debate the effects of actions on people in the outside world) and places it in that of the therapeutic (where your feelings are always valid). I cannot argue with you if you claim to be offended, because your report of your own feelings trumps any other evidence. But I also have no obligation, independent of some previously existing personal relationship, to respond to those feelings. To put it bluntly, if no one cares that you are offended, then no one needs to care that a given comment was offensive.

What I believe what people mean when they say that something is "offensive" in a political context is that that thing tends to exemplify, perpetuate or reify some form of injustice. This is the argument that all of the writers mentioned here advanced about Weiss's tweet, even as much of the Twitter commenters voiced little more than outrage. If my "translation" of the term is at all accurate, then two things follow. The first is that the claim as I have described it is very far in meaning from any reasonable interpretation of "offensive." The second is that my rewritten version of the claim of offense is a much bigger statement. No one has to care about your hurt feelings, but they do need to care about injustice. As such, I would like to see this type of reasoning offered and defended more often than it is typically is today.

But a claim that justice is being violated is also one that a person might not throw around quite so casually or frequently as a claim of being offended. And given the current state of our political discourse, particularly on social media, this might not be such a terrible thing. Certainly people should always "speak their truth." But every day I think of a million things that I do not say. I certainly do not think that watering down those claims and saying them anyway would be a more advisable policy. Instead, I would advocate making sure that the big claims that one does make are worth making, while perhaps letting the other ones drop. Such a strategy could conceivably improve the state of our politics.

Finally, there are those like Matthew Yglesias of Vox who argue (in his tweet shown above) that progressives do not rely on the "offense" trope at all. On this interpretation, the whole idea is something made up by their opponents in order to marginalize them for being tender little snowflakes. Here I can only disagree. As one example, several New York Times reporters had a conversation about Weiss's tweet on Slack that was leaked to the Huffington Post. The Huffington Post reporter has anonymized the Times writers' contributions, and I have cleaned up the spelling, grammar and punctuation. But one section of it looked like this.

Person B: Sorry, but I felt that tweet denied Mirai her full citizenship just as the [World War II Japanese] internment did. And nothing will be done because no one was offended (since we don't count)!
Person D: I was offended! I think a lot of people here were.
Person E: [I] agree with [Person D]. I was offended at her tweet.

Here we have three sophisticated New York Times reporters consecutively describing their problems with the tweet in terms of their own offense. The idea that "offensiveness" is not an important progressive category seems difficult to take seriously.

But the strongest point in favor of my case, at least in my own view, is the admittedly unimpressive one of anecdotal evidence. In that vein I would offer that in my generally progressive-to-leftist circles, the word "offensive" is thrown around so much that it has ceased to describe anything meaningful at all. It will be a better day when we stop using it entirely.