11 October 2013

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: The function of offence + News

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: The Function of Offence.

I'll keep this message short since we have three essays for the topic, including one from Ceit and the other two from Ruel and myself.

In the meantime a friend of ours would like introduce his travel agency to the group:
Luis (or Silvia)
Viajes Lawful SL
Tel 9184337992 – www.viajeslawful.es

All the best and see you Sunday


tel: 606081813
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Thursday's Open Tertulia in English
Important Notice: From December 1st, the Tertulia will take place at O'Donnells (ex-Moore's) Irish
Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal)

From Ciet-----
Hi Lawrence, I suppose I should say a few words about my topic before Sunday, not that it will make any difference in most cases:

Offense, when it has a function, is a tactical verbal weapon.  It is sometimes unleashed accidentally, but since the topic is the function of offense, it doesn't make much sense to talk about that in any detail.

First, offense can be differentiated from insult.  In general, an insult is personal and limited to the moment.  Offense, on the other hand, is meant to linger in the psyche and drive home a lasting message.  The word is also used to describe criminal acts, which gives it more weight than "insult".  Offense may be impersonal in the sense that it tends to use groups as the target or source of negative observation whereas insult is more focuses on personal qualities that the speaker does not care for, and assumes the audience does not either.  When intentional, offense has two uses, both related to social control.

In one usage, offense can be used to attack the status quo.  It is used to throw unpopular ideas into the public sphere, make people consider why they are unpopular, and possibly provoke some shift in opinion.  This sort of offense includes making fun of power structures like government, religion or other authority.  It's a joke that "punches up".  Even when no particular idea is presented in the offensive speech or image, it can serve to highlight disagreement or anger with the mainstream, and the possibility that some ideas need to be reexamined.

Also, and conversely, offense can be used to defend the status quo.  In this case, the offended are members of marginalized groups, while the source of offense is part of a privileged group.  This offense is meant to remind those lower in the social hierarchy that they are to keep quiet and not rock the boat.  It may even carry an implied threat of violence towards those who try to change the social power structures, although the most obvious characteristic is simple lack of respect for the target.  The offender may use negative stereotypes to reinforce the idea that certain people do not deserve more power, respect or opportunities in society.  They are free to be insulting or threatening to those lower on the social ladder, because that's the way things are and how they should be.  This function of offense is often hidden behind "jokes", and the target is accused of being "too sensitive" or "humorless" for not laughing along at the stereotype or the implication that violence against their group or their person is nothing to be taken seriously.

For those with a sense of humor, see Cracked:

and Louis Ck on offensive words:

From Ruel---
Hello Lawrence,

Below is the link to what I wrote re Sunday´s PhiloMadrid topic.

See you on Sunday.

From Me----
The function of offence

Offending others intentionally and taking offence is all part of the tools and warning signals we have to deal with aggression either from others or them from us. Aggression is a practical part of nature although we have evolved to minimise the use of aggression in favour of cooperation.  But the principle is that in nature, aggression is just another means to survive even if we might think that it is either wasteful or inefficient.

Offending people and taking offence is in fact part of the survival game. Offence can be verbal or behavioural; by verbal I mean spoken and also in written form, and behavioural I include physical acts we do or omissions and things we construct. Any of our actions and communication can be a cause to give offence to others.

But unlike physical aggression, the effects of offence are purely psychological and offences can affect our sense of outrage for being human, our personal circumstance and of course our culture. And an offence seems to be experienced not only on a personal relationship basis involving another person but also groups, society, cultural standing and even nations and states.

So outwardly, when we are offended, we are saying that 1) we do not approve of the other person's behaviour and 2) we find such behaviour threatening and hostile. This simple message would be well and good if this is all there is to it.

However, offences might be used to escalate the aggression between two parties. Offences might even be the first stage towards a physical fight that has been intended all along. And the reason is off course that, offences do not just affect us psychologically, but rather offences affect us emotionally. And behaviour based on emotions is not necessarily based on a rational outcome. Being emotional about something does not necessarily lead us to consider the consequences and unintended consequences of our actions. Thus offences can easily lead to physical altercation between two individuals.

In terms of efficiency I would say that verbal/written offences are quite effective as well. To begin with verbal offences are quite cheap in terms of energy investment for example a delicately placed offensive sentence can have the same desired effect as say punching someone in the face or damaging the property of the other person.

At the philosophical level I would say that the subject of offences has an import in the following aspects: morality, behaviour and philosophy of mind and of course, language. Starting with language, what is at issue here is whether language, for example in the form of speech acts and sentences, has a causal property from the speaker to the hearer?

Indeed, who is actually causing the offence? We know that it is the person who is uttering the words is the one who is causing the offence. And what is more this speech act is an offence because we perceive it to be an intentional speech act that is couched in offensive type language or language structure. Such language might be insults (you creep), demeaning expressions (you worthless piece of excrement), bad language (Fu.ck you!). Language might be used to describe physical defects of the person or those close to the person. On a more social scale, we might give offence by referring to cultural peculiarities, religion, use of stereotype descriptions of the other group and so on.

So going back to the question "who is causing the offence?" we have to consider whether it is the message or the messenger that is causing the offence. And secondly whether it is the message or the hearer that is in effect causing the offence? For example, if the hearer does not perceive the speech act as an offensive act would it still be offensive?  To begin with, I would argue that intention is a necessary condition for a speech act (and other acts) to be qualified as an offensive speech act. Someone might say something by accident or not be aware of certain information that had the person know about these conditions he or she might not have uttered the offending speech act.

Equally important I would say is that the offended person must also be in a disposition to be offended. In other words, we are either in a frame of mind that we are waiting to be offended or we are so outraged that we are offended whether we want to or not. Indeed it is -whether we want to or not- that relates to the issue of whether it is the language that causes the offence or the hearer themselves that causes the offence.

At a social level I would argue that it is more difficult to establish the intention and the disposition of the offence process. Are we really out to offend the other group or only some of us are – are they really all offended or only some are? In any case whichever way we look at this the bottom line is always an individual or an identifiable group of people acting in concert that cause the offending speech act.

Is there some group dynamic that simultaneously causes offence to the members of the group or is there some form of cascading process where maybe a few members of the group feel offended and then peer pressure will create a causal chain reaction reaching a critical mass?

I am inclined to think that the language part of the offence is by itself not a sufficient causal element of an offence. "You bastard" is not enough of itself to cause some behavioural or emotional reaction in a person, we need more, we need, as I have argued, intention and direction – an expression that is aimed at me (us) because it was me who upset the offended person with my omission to say good morning! Compare this with a sign saying "Stop" or someone shouting "Fire" or "Caution" or "Free" - if someone shouts stop we stop,  or fire we panic, or free we salivate at the bargain! In this type of language, the language is not aimed at anyone and certainly not intended specifically me nor at any one else. This form of language is just intended to convey the message to whoever wants to hear the message.

So far I have tried to discuss the mechanics of offence, and mainly the linguistic type of offences, however, there is still the factor of justification. Justification for the offence being given or taken. And furthermore the justification is established by "objective" observers who are independed of the parties involved.

In a way this is more socially interesting since we are evaluating the actions and behaviour of groups of others. And judging people is always an entertaining pastime for many individuals, although how we judge others is also part of the process of human relationships. Maybe in our discussion what is relevant is maybe the causal chain of offence.

This is also a key matter in law. Liable, slander and defamation all central legal concepts at law which suggests that offence is more than just a passing disagreement amongst people. I'm not going into the legal aspects of offence but I do wish to focus on two issues: what are the conditions to justify an offence or to give offence and secondly are personal offences the same as social offences?

As I have argued, offences seem to be part of the natural process of defence and offence (retaliatory) of human nature. This by itself should be enough to give justification for the phenomenon of offence. But this does not stop independent observers from evaluating whether an offence was justified or not; this would of course be import amongst peers or a court of law.

We also usually sense that the status between the individuals plays a major role here; for example a politician taking offence at the comments by a pensioner in the course of a political debate are usually judged to be unreasonable, but of course not the pensioner being offended by a politician. We expect a politician to be more circumspect with his language and emotions. But, two shop keepers exchanging insults and offences are a different matter, and in this sort of situation the parties can easily end up in court. In general we can safely argue that the onus is on the stronger party to try and avoid offending the weaker party or being offended by the weaker party.

If this observation is true we might argue that once we remove ourselves from the crude state of nature, we do not necessarily accept that the weak should not be respected or eliminated. In a so called civilised society we seem to reject that a stronger party has an automatic right to offend a weaker party. And by the same token, society usually ignores weak person who insists in verbally offending a stronger party. This is commonly seen during well managed and lawfully run demonstrations; demonstrators often hurl insults at the police; these insults are of no consequence to a well disciplined force.

Finally, are personal offences the same as social offences; is offending an individual the same as offending a group and society. At face value we seem to hold offences at the personal level more seriously and certainly with more consequential import. But offences aimed at groups are more circumspect. For example, no one will claim that the offence "all philosophers are liars" should in and of itself offend any philosopher although one can become angry and upset if one is a philosopher. I would argue that this is not enough to warrant elevating offences aimed at groups to the same level as personal offences.

But our standards about offences mean that we have to move away from the strict consequences of Aristotelian logic and maybe into inductive reasoning. Thus, the following argument is certainly not accepted in a civilised society: all philosophers are liars, John is a philosopher, therefore John is a liar. Without proof that John is a liar we just cannot claim that John is a liar simply because logic is on our side; to claim this would probably result in a legal action. And by demanding proof we are basically saying that even morality is based on empirical principles of truth rather than a priori principles of some logic.

Two things ought to follow from the above argument, first offending groups is not as serious as offending individuals, but we cannot progress from not serious to a group to not serious to the individual members of the group. We cannot offend groups but we can offend individuals of the group. And secondly, morality based on empirical veracity seems to be more reliable than morality based on a priori deduction.

In the meantime I hope I haven't offended anyone by demanding empirical proof that morality is valid or not.

Best Lawrence

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