In The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner reviews Stefan Collini’s latest book, which asks what it means to give offense and to feel offended. It also explores how “offensive” speech ought to be dealt with in the public sphere—a recurring issue whenever liberals criticize, or try to figure out how to respond to criticism of, religious beliefs and practices.
Treating people with respect is a fine goal, but Collini notices that respect tends to be shown with special deference to so-called “out groups.” Claims of offense that would otherwise be ignored are instead given credence and even deference. Collini also correctly identifies the people who tend to fall into this trap. Very few “progressive” forces, for example, would have shown any “understanding” of hurt Christian feelings if Jesus had been mocked in a Danish newspaper. The entire force of the argument against the offensiveness of the Danish cartoons was based on the concern that Muslims were somehow less powerful than other religious believers. But this hardly qualifies as an adequate justification for a double standard.
This is Collini’s central passage: “Where arguments are concerned—that is, matters that are pursued by means of reasons and evidence—the most important identity we can acknowledge in another person is the identity of being an intelligent reflective human being.” And in case this seems too easy or too glib, he adds:
“This does not mean assuming that people are entirely—or even primarily—rational, and it does not mean that people are, in practice, always and only persuaded by reasons and evidence. It means treating other people as we wish to be treated ourselves in this matter—namely, as potentially capable of understanding the grounds for any action or statement that concerns us. But to so treat them means that, where reason and evidence are concerned, they cannot be thought of as primarily defined by being members of the ‘Muslim community or ‘Black community’ or ‘gay community.’”
The duties of civility turn out to impose different demands on members of the majority when they are dealing with one another and when they are dealing with previously or currently stigmatised minority groups. Because women and African Americans, for example, have for centuries been treated as if they have no right to be in the public assembly room or the academy, special care has to be used when addressing them with critical arguments.