Offense-Taking: A Method of Social Control

“People who wish to be offended will always find some occasion for taking offense.” —John Wesley

When a person says to you that you have offended her with an argument or observation (I am not referring to personal insults or disparaging remarks), what she is saying is that what you have said has hurt her in some way and, since it’s wrong to hurt other people, you’re a bad person for having done so. But what she is doing is something far more insidious: she is trying to punish you for thinking out loud and silence you going forward. It’s not the character flaw Wesley thinks is; it’s a method of social control.

She can’t believe you said that!

Offensive-taking, alongside emotional blackmail, guilt-tripping, name calling, and other tactics, is a technique used to discredit speech by appealing to collective sentiment or injury. It’s an ad hominem tactic that avoids confronting the content of the speech uttered while simultaneously attempting to negate the argument or observation by delegitimizing the person making it. It’s part of a strategy of social control designed to suppress arguments and observations. This tactic can actually damage careers and reputations, and may even expose a person to physical harm. Offense-takers don’t just want you walking on eggshells around them; they want you to believe the ground is littered with eggshells. Offensive takers don’t just speak for themselves; they speak for others.

For example, if I criticize Islam, a Muslim or his ally might say that what I said about a man’s religion offends him, that my speech is harming him, that I am a bad person for making a criticism. If I want to be a good person, then I should say nothing critical of the man’s deeply held beliefs. I should be respectful of his religion and sensitive to his feelings. Otherwise, I’m “Islamophobic” and “mean.” By making them hateful, my arguments and observations are not met with any counterargument—they don’t need to be—but rather are dismissed by questioning my character and motives. Offense-taking appears similar to anger, and, like anger, the reaction of taking offense is a moralistic emotion; but it is also tactical.

Those who say they are offended don’t want people to hear speech critical of the things they believe because it interferes with their desire to push their own beliefs about the subject in question without resistance. They mean to shut you up and shut you down so they can spread their ideas more freely and widely. If nobody is criticizing their beliefs, then they believe others will be more likely to accept them—and more reluctant to criticism them themselves. To continue with the example, Islamization is an agenda pushed by some Muslims in the West; they desire an islamic West or at least communities governed by sharia. Islam is a proselytizing ideology.

When you criticize Islam as an idea system (and there is a lot to criticize), you are interfering with the agenda to spread Islam. You can tell who is pushing an agenda by whether they are “offended” by what you say. You will likely not only be called an “Islamophobe” (an attempt to make a smear appear to have some clinical heft), but also accused of “paranoia” for even thinking that there is an agenda (again, a clinical-sounding word). Another accusation that might be leveled at you is “conspiracist” or “conspiracy theory.” Sometimes offense-takers push the argument in a threatening direction, making those who say offensive things aware that, sometimes, Muslims who are offended by the things others say kill themselves—sometimes they take others with them when they go. Contradicting the beliefs and feelings of some people cause self-harm and harm to others. This is peak emotional blackmail.

What is true of Islamization is also true of the colonization of Western culture by gender ideology. Take what I have written above and swap out words in the example. Being accused of “transphobia” is not really different from being accused of “Islamophobia.” The functions of the one are the functions of the other: shut critics up and forge ahead with the agenda. Individuals critical of gender ideology and queer theory are smeared to delegitimize their argument so a religion can grow its congregation. If you resist its spread, you may find yourself accused of inducing suicide in the adherent.

There is an important lesson here: people who are offended by arguments and observations are using an irrational method of dealing with arguments and observations that threaten their agenda. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Speaking up lets others know that they are not alone in thinking what they were thinking. Mutual knowledge builds effective resistance to bad ideas. We have enough bad ideas in the world. We have to start standing up to them. A big part of this is exposing the the method of social control we call “offense-taking.”

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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