Understanding Offence: delimiting the (un)sayable (Epiphany 2024)
This project will interrogate offence from multiple disciplinary perspectives to deepen comprehension of the phenomenon, and elucidate what is involved in giving and taking offence. It will examine the term’s conceptual slipperiness and the context-dependent nature of understandings of offence, and analyse the complexities inherent in attempting to formulate normative definitions of offence that can be applied in legal or other regulatory frameworks.
A striking feature of contemporary public discourse is a pervasive preoccupation with the proper boundaries of acceptable speech and behaviour. A number of factors have lent this perennial issue increased urgency—amongst them, prominent social justice campaigns (notably, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements); the prevalence of social divisions and hate crime; the resurgence of political extremism, ethnonationalism, and religious fundamentalism; and widespread anxieties about social cohesion and the future of democracy.
A fundamental issue in these discussions is how best to create conditions in which all citizens can flourish and engage fully in civic life—including those from vulnerable, marginalised, and historically disadvantaged social groups. There is widespread agreement that challenging negative stereotypical views of these groups and actively seeking to protect them from harm are crucial in this endeavour. It is also generally recognised that demeaning treatment need not necessarily take gross or blatantly criminal forms to have a markedly detrimental effect. One result has been a heightened attention to language and modes of social interaction to ensure that these are sufficiently respectful and appropriately sensitive to difference. The operative assumption is that we have a collective obligation to abstain from words or actions that might be found offensive and injurious to others’ dignity.
While most of us would readily assent to this as a guiding principle of conduct, it is by no means straightforward in its application. Much hinges on what we understand to constitute ‘offence’—a ubiquitously employed, but highly problematic term. The definitions offered in the Oxford English Dictionary imply a striking complexity of import. Modern usage retains the basic senses of the classical Latin offensa (literally—‘a striking against’) and the Middle French offence, from both of which the English word derives: ‘attack’, ‘injury’, ‘affront’, ‘misdeed’. However, they have long been overlaid with more complex meanings: ‘wounding the feelings of, or displeasing another (usually viewed as it affects the person offended)’; ‘a cause of annoyance or disgust’; ‘resentment caused (voluntarily or involuntarily) to a person’. These supplementary definitions emphasise the importance of subjective and contextual factors in understandings of offence, as well as highlighting uncertainty about where responsibility for offence may lie. Similar semantic complexities are attendant on cognate terms in other languages.
Given the extensive practical ramifications of the ambiguities inherent in the concept, it is surprising to discover that it has received little sustained critical attention. Although extensive research has been undertaken on related topics (for example, invective, civility, sexual and racial harassment, hate speech, censorship), to date, no broad study has been attempted of the phenomenon of offence itself, and of what is involved in giving and taking offence. The project proposed here is conceived as preparatory work for such an undertaking.
The intricacy of the issues attendant on offence means that they cannot be addressed satisfactorily within a single discipline and manifestly require an interdisciplinary approach.
Humanities perspectives deepen our comprehension of offence as a phenomenon and highlight a crucial difficulty—that of formulating normative definitions. Understandings of offence not only differ from individual to individual, but display extensive cultural variation and change over time. Many countries have witnessed far-reaching transformations in attitudes towards blasphemy, profanity, and dress codes—to mention only a few areas of particular sensitivity. Equally, one could adduce numerous examples of former linguistic usages and behaviours which would now be considered racist, sexist, or offensive in other ways. Disciplinary fields such as history, philosophy, cultural studies, linguistics, discourse analysis, and affect studies can illuminate these issues, and demonstrate how offence touches on fundamental questions concerning authority, power, and the social construction of value. The kinds of speech and actions that a society deems offensive, the mechanisms it introduces to regulate offence and the effort it devotes to enforcing them (for example, through censorship or other curbs on freedom of expression) are richly revealing of modes of collective self-imagining and the ideologies that shape them.
These issues are not merely of historical interest, but remain highly pertinent today. The boundaries between the offensive and inoffensive have been extensively redrawn in secularised liberal democracies, but that does not mean that they are uncontested. In plural societies, conflicting views of what constitutes offence will inevitably arise, and those views will evolve as social attitudes shift and behaviours change. Offence continues to raise complex challenges—and not merely when words and deeds plainly fall foul of the law. The experience of being offended can touch on highly emotive questions concerning moral values, personal and group identity, and one’s sense of fundamental worth as a human being. In any discussions where such sensitive matters come into play, considerations pertaining to offence are always present—most acutely, when markedly divergent ideological standpoints are in conflict and criticism of a contrary position risks being perceived as an attack. In such circumstances, offence may inhibit productive discussion: it may even be weaponised in an attempt to shut down debate and force a particular outcome (a common strategy of repressive political regimes). Avoiding offence is not always possible or, arguably, even desirable. In a democracy, objections to purportedly offensive speech or behaviour must be balanced against considerations such as freedom of expression (including artistic and academic freedom), the right to protest, or the need to combat tendencies that would be socially divisive or lead to the oppression of one group by another. Offence thus has a crucial bearing on the conduct of politics and political debate about important social issues at local, national, and international levels.
The perspectives of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and political philosophy are clearly indispensable for understanding these problems and the challenges that they present for individuals, institutions, society at large, and international relations. Notwithstanding changes in social attitudes, negative stereotyping persists and hostile discourses about groups with particular characteristics remain widespread—sometimes in full knowledge that they are widely considered offensive. The nature of the harm caused by offensive speech and behaviour poses particularly knotty questions: it can be hard to evidence, and even where it can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, it is often difficult to remedy. Minority groups may experience forms of low-level harassment that the police struggle to avert, for example, but which nonetheless cause significant anxiety and distress.
Monitoring and counteracting offensive speech and behaviour also presents considerable practical challenges, not least in terms of resources. These are particularly acute in relation to the proliferation of offensive material on digital media. Legal remedies are often slow and costly to implement, and any effective broad strategy for dealing with the problem will necessarily entail educational and other prophylactic measures.
Despite the inescapably subjective and constructed nature of offence, our institutions must operate with at least some stable normative understandings if they are to control forms of expression and actions which are likely to harm others. Inevitably, formulating and applying these understandings will be messy and contentious: the operation of ‘respect policies’ in our workplaces and current controversies concerning the teaching of potentially offensive texts or artworks in educational curricula are moot cases in point.
The law has long grappled with the problems of what constitutes ‘offensive’ expression and where the line should be drawn between protecting freedom of expression and criminalising or regulating to avoid offence. It has previously attempted to perform this balancing act in regard of a range of forums (notably, universities, public protests, and artistic expression) and attention is increasingly focussing on the online context. Section 127(1) of the 2003 Communications Act, which prohibits ‘improper use of a public electronic communications network’ to relay ‘grossly offensive’ content, has been deployed with growing frequency over the last decade—in part due to mounting concerns about the abuse directed at female MPs and other public figures on social media. Legal debates on the regulation of offensive expression are set to intensify in the UK. The ambitious Online Safety Bill, which is about to come before Parliament, provides for sanctions against companies owning online platforms if they host content deemed offensive or harmful, even if it is legal. At the same time, the Bill obliges the providers to uphold freedom of expression. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2022 is intended to prevent Universities and Student Unions from barring speakers whose views are deemed offensive to some. The proposed British Bill of Rights may include provisions to strengthen freedom of expression when it conflicts with various ‘public interests’, which would include ‘the protection of morals’ and ‘the rights of others’.
Interrogating and clarifying our understandings of offence is consequently a matter of pressing urgency and wide relevance, and one with a direct practical bearing on many aspects of our lives. The research team will examine the complex issues surrounding offence from a range of distinct, but complementary disciplinary perspectives. This projects aims to deepen comprehension of offence as a phenomenon and think creatively about managing the challenges that it presents to society. A central concern will be to analyse the difficulties inherent in formulating conceptually robust definitions of offence that will meet with broad agreement in plural democratic societies and which can form the basis for effective regulatory and legal frameworks.