Software Musings

Taking Offence

Posted on: 29/06/2006

Some time ago I dropped a rather unfunny joke into a technical document I was writing (I seem to remember that the same “joke” appears in my book on WBEM/CIM). It was necessary to distinguish between is-a and has-a relationships and I was using is married to as an example of a relationship. The document was being written at a time when Ontario, the province in which I live, was debating the dull topic of homosexual marriage and, having explained the concept of the is married to relationship as being between an instance of the class MALE and an instance of class FEMALE, I put in a footnote saying something like “except in Ontario”. OK, I didn’t say that it was a good joke but, even if it’s not taken as a joke at all, the footnote is true.

Anyway, some time later I had a somewhat shamefaced person from our Personnel Department on the telephone to say that one of the readers of my document had been offended by the footnote and had made a formal complaint about it. My first reaction was to defend the comment as being literally true and then, feeling sorry for the complainant, since it is unlucky to be stupid, I immediately re-issued the document without the offensive footnote.

This type of issue came up again recently when I was discussing the whole area of offensive behaviour with a couple of colleagues. My desk is open-plan (a euphemism for a Dilbert-like cubical) and from time-to-time the company organises so-called General Information Sessions within my earshot. These are often preceded by rather objectionable music and I made the point that, if we were to ensure that no one is ever offended, then that music should be stopped. This led to an interesting remark from one of my colleagues, one to which I have been giving a great deal of thought since: she said that I could reasonably object to the words of a song but not to the music. I didn’t get the impression that she was quoting company policy here; she was stating her opinion.

To take a neutral art for a moment, consider pictures. If I cut out a pin-up of a unclad girl (or, presumably, boy) from a magazine and pinned it over my desk I think people could reasonably object. One of the pictures I do, however, have over my desk is the head of Venus from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. I only have Venus’ head and no one, to my knowledge, has taken offence. The entire picture, however, shews a naked Mars exhausted by love making lying across her lap with Venus looking calmly on without a misplaced hair. I suppose that this might well be offensive to some people.

This offence thing is difficult since it varies from culture to culture and I have no idea who will read my documents on is-a and has-a relationships or wander past my desk and eye my Venus pinup. In the USA, for example, depictions of violence don’t seem to be offensive whereas almost any unclad person is. In Holland, where I used to live, it seemed to be the opposite: nudity was normal, violence was offensive.

So, can music be offensive? The music itself rather than the words? Would my complaint at work about the music to which I’m subjected be less frivolous than that of the person who objected to my marriage “joke”? I think that the answer is “yes” in both cases. Music goes a lot deeper into the soul than most words (I exclude some poetry) and, in my wife’s words, much music offends in the way that a bad smell offends. It is pervasive and difficult to avoid.

When we have all stopped offending each other we will live in the blandest of worlds. As Alan Bennett has the Headmaster say at the end of Forty Years On: “Country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year. We have become a battery people, a people of under-privileged hearts fed on pap in darkness, bred out of all taste and season to savour the shoddy splendours of the new civility.”

I aspire to be that gentleman who never offends unintentionally. But one who avoids the shoddy splendours of my employer’s civility.


6 Responses to "Taking Offence"

This is a particular hobby horse of mine because I believe the future sanity of the planet is at stake as there get more and more of us and as some of us continue to dream of becoming civilized.

I have therefore drawn up what I call the ‘Ten Precepts’ and here they are:

The Ten Precepts.

1. Offence is always taken but not always willingly given; abuse is always given, usually unwillingly taken.

2. No one has the right not to be given offence; therefore, everyone has the right to offend and be offended.

3. Everyone has the right not to be abused; no one has the right to abuse.

4. Offence is a perceived harm but not a real harm; abuse is a real harm, perceived or not.

5. Offence cannot affect the right to freedom of speech; abuse must affect the right to freedom of speech.

6. Offence without violence cannot be abuse; abuse is always violent.

7. Truth appears when violence is removed; without violence, most people will tell the truth.

8. There is a narrow space between offence and abuse; this space is the legitimate place for debate and legal dispute.

9. Torture is never justified; to those who legislate otherwise, let them have some.

10. God is not mocked since this defines God; all else is mocked.

No doubt these ten precepts can be hacked about and further leavened by due democratic process but the spirit behind them must live on.

By way of illustration, let me quote the parable of the trampolining nuns from the Book of Sensible Sensibilities:

The trampolining nuns took offence at the sight of the monks bathing nude on the other side of the fence which separated them. The monks gave no offence because they had built the fence high enough round themselves to hide themselves and, therefore, gave no offence. Yet the trampolining nuns took offence, nevertheless. Some of them jumped higher so that the offence that they took might be the greater and last the longer. Some jumped lower so that they could not then see over the fence yet took offence none the less. Others moved their trampoline away from the fence so that they could not jump high enough to see over the fence and of these there were those who took no offence.

What a useful distinction and persuasive set of precepts.

Is another distinction between offence and abuse that the perpetrator can more accurately predict that a particular action will abuse? I had no idea that my “joke” could or would offend anyone and I still can’t imagine a mind offended by it. Indeed, there might be people out there offended by my use of the letter “e” in many of the words of this comment.

On the other hand, I do feel that I could more easily predict that an action of mine would abuse someone. And I would avoid it.

My other comment is on precept 6. I assume that “violence” does not imply “physical violence”.

Chris has complained that I don’t comment enough on his blog. I don’t take offense at that claim. And his jokes ARE offensive, but only in the sense that Carrottop’s hair offends the eye. And I know whereof I speak: my joking skills make him sound like Mark Twain by comparison.

In the current case, I guess I’m savoring the orchid-sweet scent of irony: Canada, from a US observer’s eye, being the most PC of countries… I recall driving down Colonel By Drive one afternoon and noticing a rather dirty and unsavory looking woman, unclad from the waist up, panhandling in the middle of the street. No one, Canadians mostly I assume, seemt to take any offense at this even though it certainly offended my eye.

Ahhh: Political Correctness. So called because that is the ONLY way it is correct: politically. Otherwise it is nonsense.

It’s true. The word violence is a problem. Clearly violence does not mean physical violence only. It includes physical violence, of course, but the danger is of producing a circular definition of violence in terms of abuse and abuse in terms of violence.

A legal definition of violence is: ‘unlawful exercise of physical force, intimidation by exhibition of this.’

In other words violence is still violence even if no actual physical force is used but the potential use of such force is made obvious.

But another way of distinguishing between offence and abuse occurs to me. Something that is offensive is offensive to an extent which depends on the context in which it takes place. An abuse is equally an abuse in any context. Abuse creates its own context. Of course, abuse may also be offensive but, sadly, not always to everyone.

Ali illustrates this distinction perfectly when she writes: ‘If you ABUSE their output by Bowdlerising it, this might cause OFFENCE in some quarters!’

The abuse stands regardless but while you might cause offence to some, others would not mind.

A further thought about “abuse”. The dictionary definitions do not mention this but it has something to do with showing a lack of respect. Child abuse shows a lack of respect for the trusting innocence of a child. Substance abuse shows a lack of respect for one’s own body. Human rights abuse… well, that’s obvious.

I think you can badly abuse someone without resorting to physical violence: think of school bullying, which is often “merely” verbal. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a flagrant lie, as I have all too often observed. This raises another question: if the bully torments a child with words to the extent that the victim eventually lashes out in a violent manner, who is the abuser in that scenario?

I, too, am bemused by the original offence that you cited. I have often wondered if the offended is the one speaking or the one who is listening!

I attended a workshop on performing given by Steve Martin of “Shall we Dance” fame (in this film he played the part of MC at the dance competitions).

In listening to him I realised that almost anything I do can cause offence to another person without that being my intent. He explained that judges form opinions about your dance floor performance but are also influenced by your off-the-floor behaviour. You may be the best dancer on the floor but if you are rude or careless of other’s feelings it is hard for many judges not to think of that whilst looking at your dancing! He quoted many examples of times when we may think we are invisible but are not. Some are funny, others I do myself!

So in summary I think we should always consider other peoples’ sensitivities but if that ends up in a humourless world we will have lost something really important to everybody….laughter!

In the continuum of sensitivity to lack of sensitivity, there is a fair point where most reasonable people know when to laugh and when not to. Laughing at ones own mistakes is better in my opinion that crucifying oneself, when in fact mistakes are the essence of learning.

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June 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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