Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sticks and Stones

Jonathan Derbyshire writes about how hard it is to avoid giving offense, since some people take offense simply because they are oversensitive, or because they harbor unjustified prejudices.

. . . there is no "distinctive performative verb for insulting"; that is, we don't say, "I insult you," whereas we do say, "I promise to you" or "I censure you." This means that insults are often ambiguous: One can be insulted without taking offense (the insult can, as Austin puts it, "misfire"), just as one can take offense where none is intended. There are . . significant implications here for restrictions on hate speech confined to profane or vulgar language. There can be "politely worded insults," after all, but to prohibit these as well would be to risk "stifling all controversial discourse." It is one thing to claim that words are also deeds and can do harm, and quite another confidently to specify the words that wound.

Terry Wogan on his morning radio show often describes people listening or watching TV, and waiting expectantly to be offended. Some of them have lived in parishes I have served as a priest. Then again Jesus was accused of blasphemy, and the early Christians were known as atheists. So what should we expect?

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