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Doing so will offend those of us who have different priorities.
* * *
Wait, the Hypothetical Interlocutor asks, it’s good to offend?
Wait, isn’t it bad to be offensive?
Wait, aren’t you ‘justice’ folks supposed to be tolerant?
Wait hold on a second, you talk all about how bad it is to put people into two buckets, and here you are talking about the ‘good’ Justice people and the ‘evil’ Order people, well haven’t you been putting people into two buckets???
Wow, Hypothetical Interlocutor sure is asking a lot of questions right when I want them asked. Thanks, Hypothetical Interlocutor! So glad you showed up!
(Seriously, if you're writing a blog, hire a a good H.I. They really help out.)
Let’s consider tolerance and offensiveness.
Which is true.
From that one might get the idea that the whole point is not being offensive. Or that tolerance is the same thing as inoffensiveness.
This misses the point. Inoffensiveness is not the point. The point is justice. Our frame is justice.
Because, remember, we all belong to each other. And life is not something you have to earn.
That’s tolerance. It’s the base line.
Tolerance is the lowest rung on justice’s ladder.
Tolerance is the medicine suggested for those people you can’t stand, so as to continue, through your distaste, to pursue justice for them.
We tolerate the KKK.
Tolerance is what happens when we insist there is only one bucket. Those who prefer justice go in that bucket, along with those who prefer order. And even those who prefer injustice. Tolerance says all humans deserve a justice grounded in unconditional love.
If I feel as if I’m being asked to be tolerant too much, I might want to think about that.
Suppose I am resentful, because I am constantly being urged toward tolerance for an ever-increasing number of groups of people. Rather than complaining about political correctness, it might be wise to reflect on what that might say about me, that I despise so many people, who must therefore be tolerated, and that I chafe so frequently against this, the most basic of justice’s requests.
It’s a pretty good hint that I’m an intolerant person if neutral reminders that other people exist strike me as aggressions requiring retaliation. If the existence of an all-female Ghostbusters movie is an affront, or a black Human Torch sends me into paroxysms of being Mad On The Internet. If a store greeter’s simple ‘happy holidays’ is an attack on Christmas, a salvo in a larger war. If hearing a foreign language in the grocery store strips me of my very country. If a gay marriage somehow threatens my straight one. If someone living outside of the doctrines of my religious practice is an attack on my religious practice.
Tolerance is such a short curb, and so many, unwilling to lift their foot an inch, will loudly complain when they trip over it and fall, will present their skinned knee as evidence of a system arrayed against them.
Tolerance is something meant for unjust humans. Tolerance is no virtue when applied to unjust ideas.
Tolerance doesn’t mean I have earned the right to a public debate. It just means if I engage in one, the government cannot prosecute me.
Tolerance doesn’t mean I have the right to speak hatred at universities. It only means that should a university exercise bad taste and poor judgment, I might be invited to do so, and neither they nor I can or should ever be arrested or prosecuted by the government as a result.
Tolerance doesn’t save me a seat on a talk show couch.
Tolerance doesn’t mean my ideas won’t be met with protest and boycott.
Tolerance doesn’t mean my employer can’t fire me for saying something hateful or evil, nor does tolerance spare me from other ill consequence of harmful actions or beliefs.
However, if I am a person working to preserve and increase an order based on injustice, I can’t have consideration, acceptance and celebration; not from those who prioritize justice, anyway. I will have tolerance from them. It’s not much, but it’s significantly more than I afford others.
A lot of us who don’t want to treat fellow humans with even the thin gruel of tolerance get mixed up on this point when we want our noxious ideas to be tolerated. “So much for the tolerant left,” we sneer, having just expressed some opinion harmful to human dignity, having been met with opposition, or perhaps even called some nasty name as a result.
It can be very offensive to be called a nasty name, I know. So, in the interests of tolerance and justice, to any reading this who have been called nasty names simply because of deeply held beliefs that other people should lose access to equal treatment under the law, or access to essential human need, let me say this:
Tough titty, assholes.
See? Now, that's offense.
Offense is a bit different than intolerance. Offense is thick on the ground; everyone can get a handful. Offense is what happens when one person refuses to accept the values of another as true or valid.
Intolerance of people is both offensive and unjust.
Intolerance of values is offensive to those who hold the un-tolerated values, but whether or not that offensiveness is a product of injustice depends on what those values are.
The difference matters a lot. We have the right to not be treated unjustly. We do not have the right to not be offended, particularly if we ourselves resent being asked to acknowledge that other people exist. We don’t have the right to have our beliefs accepted by those framed upon justice, if what we believe is unacceptable to justice.
This is why I strongly suggest that, if what you want is justice, it is best to stop talking about offensiveness. To tell somebody they have been offensive is to assume they actually care about the dignity of other people enough to change their actions. It’s probably not appropriate to do so with those who have already proved this assumption incorrect at every opportunity. Turning a conversation to offensiveness with such people allows them to reframe the argument toward something you both do, which is to cause offense.
Make the conversation about justice. Leave offense out of it—and get ready to cause serious offense. Remember: There has never been a hero of justice, revered by history, that did not in their time cause great offense.
Desired? Wait. Surely I don’t mean that. Desiring offensiveness?
Isn’t it better to be polite than impolite, civil rather than uncivil?
In many cases, yes.
Choosing politeness is often a luxury the powerful afford themselves. When I have total control over a situation, politeness is easy. It can be my way of signaling moral authority, even as I profit off of grotesque abuse. More than that—when I am an abusive person, civility is often the way I make my abuse polite. It’s how I bring order to injustice.
(We already know this, by the way. Think of the stories we tell ourselves. Our most chilling villains are frequently urbane, cultured, and polite. It’s an indicator of how chillingly powerful they are, how dangerous it is that they should be able to become likeable.)
An excellent indication that you are successfully changing the frame to justice is this: People will start wanting to talk about politeness, who were strangely never worried about it before. The tone you’re using in the conversation will suddenly become the most important thing, much more important than the actual topic of conversation. Civility will suddenly begin to matter among those who in the recent past made successful use of shocking incivility.
So, if you can be polite, be polite—by all means, be polite. Politeness opens the door to the possibility of persuasion, civility ingratiates in ways that might change a mind.
But never forget that politeness and civility are choices that can be made from a position of power, and can therefore be used as a weapon of the powerful against those without. If you are able to choose civility when you are opposing injustice and abuse, I certainly recommend that you do so. But do not dare scold someone else for their incivility, as a way of closing them from their demands for justice. Do not dare pretend to make yourself the hero of their story, when they are of necessity being many times braver than you just by existing in an environment that is hostile to them.
Some will still think I’m saying civility is bad. I am not. Civility is good.
But our fight is one of priority between competing good things. And civility is not more important than justice.
In a just society, civility would obviously be preferable to incivility. In fact, civility would be a natural result of a society based on justice. It would not need to be called for; it would simply be.
But impoliteness is not injustice. And justice will offend the unjust. Justice, it must be said, is, frequently necessarily impolite in an unjust society. Civility is good, but justice is key. When in conflict with an unjust order, justice demands not civility first, but opposition.
Be polite if you can, certainly. Politeness can keep a door open, can extend an invitation into a space where persuasion might happen.
But impoliteness might pop a bubble, where politeness might not.
* * *
In one other key way, offensiveness is not injustice.
One cannot be unjust without the power to do so. One can think unjust thoughts, but without the power to enact them, injustice will not be the result.
The offense caused by the actions of the powerful is oppression.
The offense caused by the protests of the powerless is opposition.
The best way to tell the difference is to ask yourself, if these people succeed, or if they fail, what will be the result?
When oppression succeeds, an oppressed people loses their right to exist on their own terms. When it fails, those people secure that right, while an oppressive people merely lose their ability to force others to exist on their own oppressive terms.
Both opposition and oppression are offensive, but the difference matters, a lot, when the frame is justice.
When we unjust people find ourselves offended by demands of justice, we aren’t being oppressed, which suggests that some basic human right is being taken from us. Rather, we are being opposed. And of course we don’t like it. Nobody likes being opposed. It can be taken for oppression, this opposition, even if the opposing party still has far less power than the opposed.
Suppose I’ve spent years as the only voice allowed to speak, when suddenly everyone else is allowed to speak. I will feel the diminishment of my power, and may cry out at the seeming injustice, even if I do still hold the only microphone.
Suppose I’ve never before faced criticism for my decisions, because all who might criticize feared the consequence of doing so, but that fear is slowly lifted. If I am then criticized, I will feel the diminishment of my power, and may mistake this criticism as oppression, even though I still hold the most authority.
Perhaps, if I'm an abusive person, what I want is not merely all the authority and all the consideration and all the power. Perhaps I even want to capture for myself the one thing that those I abuse have, which I do not, which is the moral clarity that comes from opposing injustice. One mark I leave behind when I am an abusive person is that I, bereft of true heroism, not oppressed but seeking to oppress, awkwardly cloak myself in borrowed signs of heroism, imagery stolen directly from the struggle against oppression of those I intend to oppress.
|Look, it's the Ruby Bridges of powerful people who want to cut back on civil rights in schools
|Look, it's one of the many Rosa Parkses of
Every villain in every story ever told thought they were getting a raw deal when they faced opposition. But that doesn’t make the happy ending any less happy when they were defeated.
Happy, because there was injustice in the world. People without power were being treated by people with power as if they weren’t even people. And then something happened to chance that power dynamic, and afterward more people had more room to live and be and exist than they did before.
There’s always somebody at the end of that story that lost the power they were abusing. Someone is always rightfully diminished. And everybody listening to the story is very glad.
Injustice rises to power. Injustice abuses and oppresses. Injustice meets resistance. Injustice is defeated. It’s a good story. We tell it again and again.
In our stories, the fall of an abuser is a component of every happy ending.
But then again … another component of our happy endings is the restoration of the status quo. Of order. What to do, then, when the status quo is itself abusive?
It’s time for us to consider the marketplace of ideas. It’s time to consider ‘both sides.’
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