The Culture Wars and the “Right to Offend”

Why here? Why now?

We live in the era of the Culture Wars. On that we can probably all agree, whichever of the multifarious factions we align ourselves with; or even if we wish a plague on both their houses, as it were. How have thing come to this impasse where, as common inhabitants of a society, we are so divided against each other? One might argue that it has always been thus. But there does seem to be something peculiarly extreme about the current time in that, despite the widely shared view that great progress has been made in our understanding of the human condition and in exposing embedded injustices in society at many levels, the consequence of this appears to be a hardening of positions in relation to what constitutes individual virtue and social progress. Why is this?

Many explanations might be offered: the depersonalisation of interaction on social media; self-reinforcing information bubbles; an information vacuum caused by the prevalence of “fake news”; the rise of populist demagogues; a lack of political leadership; a generation gap; national identities being diluted by out-of-control immigration; latent xenophobia; an overly aggressive “woke” agenda; embedded resistance to the woke agenda. It is not hard to see from the preceding list how, even in attempting to explain the phenomenon, one person’s view of the cause of the conflict can often be perceived by someone else as the definition of progress. One thing I would suggest is that the concept of “identity” is an underlying factor in much of the conflict which we see; and that the increasing preoccupation with this in the last decade or two has fuelled and exacerbated that conflict.

But why is it that this is becoming such an issue now, as opposed to in previous decades, and why it so prevalent In North America and Europe? As to the where, demographics would appear to be key. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Culture Wars have their most explosive manifestation in the United State of America, the most racially and ethnically diverse society in the world by a long way. Also the recent rapid rises of immigration into Europe occasioned by conflict in North Africa and the Middle East have led to similar challenges of how to make a multi-cultural society work. It is not often admitted, but the attempt to construct a form of society which explicitly disavows a concept of a native culture is in many ways a new experiment without a blueprint showing the way it can be made to work, or indeed any proof that the experiment will have an outcome which can be deemed successful. The Culture Wars could in many ways be seen as a battle to determine how this issue gets resolved for the longer term.

The question of why now is less straightforward to address. What I would suggest is that the answer is not to be found so much in events as in ideas, specifically philosophical ideas. In his 2004 book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, philosopher Stephen Hicks presages the Culture Wars, identifying their origins in postmodernism’s attack on the epistemological foundations of modern society:

In postmodernism we find metaphysical antirealism, epistemological subjectivity, the placing of feeling at the root of all value issues, the consequent relativism of both knowledge and values, and the consequent devaluing and disvaluing of the scientific enterprise.

Hicks explains over the course of his book how, from the time of Kant, Hume and the Enlightenment the epistemological issue of how subjective consciousness can have knowledge of an objective world “out there”, has bedevilled philosophical inquiry. The radical conclusion propounded by postmodernist thinkers is that there is not and and cannot be any objective foundation for knowledge. Consequently there is no such thing as Truth, only subjective views of truth. Likewise, there is no objective basis for the assertion of any values. The illusion that values exist in society is a consequence of the fact that those who have historically wielded power in society have used their power to impose the values that suit their interests and entrench their positions of relative privilege. This situation cannot be rectified by uncovering the “right” or “true” values. Rather, redress can only be achieved through systematically dismantling the power structures through which contemporary values are imposed and sustained.

The suggestion of Hicks is that this conclusion propels postmodern thinkers and all who are influenced by their ideas towards nihilism. Furthermore, if these ideas are not successfully refuted the Enlightenment foundations of modern society will be eroded, including the confidence of the great scientific enterprise of modernity and of the free market economy. In this he appears to have proved prescient.

The importance of “identity”

But what has all this got to do with identity and the Culture Wars? And how can I assert that “epistemology” is so important when few people are talking about it and most probably don’t even know what the word means? These questions in fact relate to two sides of the same coin and so can be conveniently addressed together. The important point to understand is that the method postmodernists (or those in thrall to their thinking) propose to get around the lack of a firm grounding of “knowledge” is to replace universal truth with “my truth.” The legitimacy of my perspective then lies not in its objective grounding (which can never be satisfactorily demonstrated) but in its being a representation of my lived experience, on which subject I am of course uniquely qualified to pronounce. When there is need to adjudicate between conflicting perspectives, the final step is that it is not evidence or logic which is paramount but rather the identity of the person who is asserting “their truth.”

In this way a competitive hierarchy of identities is posited which have relative authority based on the degree of injustice which is deemed to have been experienced by the relevant identity group. The great thing about this is that you do not have to provide evidence of having personally experienced actual injustice, only of your membership of the relevant group, which status will typically be defined by possession of a shared characteristic such as race, ethnicity, gender or religious affiliation. When one thinks about it in these terms, one starts to understand why the Culture Wars are being waged as they are: identity and the associated assertion of victim status become a proxy for evidence and logic as a badge of authenticity affirming the truth of your narrative and the right to be believed and taken seriously. Consequently we are engaged in a battle not of conflicting truth claims but of competing claims to victim status.

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay explain how this works in their Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (Swift Press, 2020). They claim that postmodernism as a theoretical movement was seen as having died by the 1990’s, but has been more recently reborn as what they call applied postmodernism consisting in “a diverse set of highly politicized and actionable Theories…that were put to work in the world to deconstruct social injustice”. In their view these applied postmodernists

are obsessed with power, language, knowledge, and the relationships between them. They interpret the world through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction, utterance, and cultural artifact—even when they aren’t obvious or real. This is a world that centers social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything into a zero-sum political struggle revolving around identity markers like race, gender, sexuality and many others.

Thus we see the emergence of the theory of intersectionality whereby a pecking order is established to adjudicate between claims and, if you can demonstrate yourself to be a member of more than one group deemed to be in receipt of unjust treatment, your victim status is further enhanced by your being able to claim the compounding of injustice. Of course, the converse of this is that, if you are unlucky enough to be associated with an identity group which is deemed not to be subject to systematically unjust treatment, your group can be accorded oppressor status and your view on issues relating to the interests of members of victim groups can be discounted without any consideration. And if you persist in asserting your view nonetheless, you will risk becoming the victim of Cancel Culture whereby you are “called out” and your social status, reputation and career can be deliberately damaged or destroyed by Social Justice Warriors, with friends, family and colleagues who come to your defence being potentially subjected to similar treatment.

So the answer to the question “Why now?” is simply that the hegemony of postmodern ideas is finally being established and permeating out into society as a whole through the media (including social media), through educational institutions and increasingly these days through public bodies and private corporations. So what is to be done? Is this the way increasingly we can expect debate about social issues and public policy to be conducted? In Hicks’ closing statement he opines:

The Enlightenment was based on premises opposite to those of postmodernism, but while the Enlightenment was able to creates a magnificent world on the basis of those premises, it articulated and defended them only incompletely. That weakness is the sole source of postmodernism’s power against it. Completing the articulation and defense of those premises is therefore essential to maintaining the forward progress of the enlightenment vision and shielding it against postmodern strategies.

op. cit.

So in his view the way forward is through the emergence of a richer philosophical paradigm within which the issues can be more fruitfully addressed. This is a significant challenge and it might be argued that not much progress has been made in that direction in the decade and a half since Hicks wrote these words. Indeed the escalation of the Culture Wars to their current level could be construed as evidence that not much resistance has been offered to the extension of postmodernist hegemony in relation to the terms on which public debate is conducted.

 Ken Wilber in his Trump and a Post-Truth World notes in a similar vein how postmodernism in attempting to create a new basis for determining truth has ultimately undermined it.

And thus postmodernism as a widespread leading-edge viewpoint slid into its extreme forms (e.g., not just that all knowledge is context-bound, but that all knowledge is nothing but shifting contexts; or not just that all knowledge is co-created with the knower and various intrinsic, subsisting features of the known, but that all knowledge is nothing but a fabricated social construction driven only by power). When it becomes not just that all individuals have the right to choose their own values (as long as they don’t harm others), but that hence there is nothing universal in (or held-in-common by) any values at all, this leads straight to axiological nihilism: there are no believable, real values anywhere.

A new paradigm of “engagement”

In a series of essays under the title The Axiological Turn in Epistemology, Don Trubshaw sets out a similar argument. Unlike Hicks or Wilber, though, he concludes in Part 4, The Concept of ‘Engagement’ and the Societics of Knowledge, with a tentative proposal about how an alternative approach might be structured to counteract the postmodernist narrative. His engagement paradigm is framed as “a socialised model of knowledge [which] effectively circumvents the issue [problems associated with subjectivism] by reframing the question of knowledge in a new context.” The issue is addressed by noting first that knowledge understood in its widest sense is distributed across multiple realms and so must be “engaged with” in multiple ways:

This knowledge is distributed over the four realms of nature, society, culture and mind and accessed through the four modes of engagement: embeddedness, participation, immersion and reflection…Engagement is the mode of knowing within a fully socialised model of human being. Within such a model knowledge is no longer seen as merely scientific or the preserve of individual subjectivity but distributed across nature, society and culture also and accessed through the four forms of engagement

op. cit.

The four modes of engagement are summarised as follows:

Embeddedness – the immediacy of nature and our experience of it;
Participation – the interaction with other minds through the culture and institutions of society; 
Immersion – the interaction with and transformation of nature through the culture and institutions of society, augmenting and changing them in the process; 
Reflection – narrative theory of self, other selves and world.

op. cit.

The interconnectedness of the realms and associated modes of engagement is made clear, not least in the fact cultures and institutions are viewed at the same time as the means through which minds interact in participative engagement, and as the object of transformation in the process of immersive engagement. And of course we can engage reflectively on the roles that cultures and institutions play (as we are now doing).

A further important aspect of the modes of engagement is that they all have associated axiological aspects, by which is meant that they contain implicitly, or give rise to, methods or standards of valuation. In particular the following are identified by Trubshaw:

  • Embeddedness: values relating to sensual pleasure, such as comfort or vitality;
  • Participation: values relating to belonging, such as duty, loyalty, love or fairness;
  • Immersion: values which give rise to prestige, such as creativity, success and expertise;
  • Reflection: meta-values which are a product of the reflective process, specifically truth, beauty and goodness.

To see whether this approach provides a fruitful alternative to the postmodernist discourse/narrative, let us apply it to one of the issues which is proving an area of contention in the Culture Wars and see what traction it furnishes. Specifically let us consider the question of whether there is such a thing as a “right to offend.”

A right to offend?

Considering this first from the postmodernist perspective, the position is to a degree ambivalent. Offence is a subjective response to another person’s behaviour or words. If a person claims to have experienced hurt, there is no objective basis for challenging that claim. Social Justice, as defined by the postmodernists, requires that those engaging in and/or any organisation facilitating or condoning the offensive behaviour should be held accountable for the consequences. The key question is then how we evaluate the consequences. This is done on the basis of whether those experiencing offence did so on the basis of their membership of one or other victim group. If so, there should be pushback against those responsible. Apologies should be demanded. But forgiveness should probably not be given since this might reduce the deterrent effect against future such behaviour. Alternatively, if those claiming offence can be considered to be doing so on the basis of being members of a group which does not have an established victim status, their protestations can probably be ignored, or even ridiculed if their position is deemed sufficiently privileged.

In the alternative, how might the paradigm of engagement inform our understanding of this issue? In the first instance there would be agreement with the postmodernists that in the realm of reflection the truth and falsehood of a claim to be hurt or offended cannot readily be disproved. However, this is not the whole story. There are also considerations in the realm of immersion which ask to be taken into account. It is relevant to consider the degree of hurt sustained. Claims can be evaluated to a degree by comparison with the testimony of similar persons in similar circumstances; or indeed by the same person in comparable circumstances. This can lead to an assessment of whether the grievance is perhaps being overstated, or even insincerely stated. Also consideration can be given to whether the injured party has an interest in such overstatement, say in terms of the level of compensation sought. Evidence in court cases tends to be evaluated in this light, which may seem unfair to the injured party, but in a legal setting it is important to be fair at the same time to the accused. (Arguably this principle should be applicable in non-legal settings too.)

But the main differences arise under our proposed new approach in relation to what should be done in response, if it is concluded that hurt or offence was genuinely experienced. The first question here is whether such was intended. This can be assessed through considerations in the realms of reflection and immersion much as discussed above. If it is concluded that the offence or hurt was indeed intended, there will typically be sanctions within the law of the land or, in the context of an organisation or professional setting, through existing disciplinary procedures.

A second possibility is that it may be claimed the action or statement was not made with the intention of causing offence. This may or may not serve as a mitigation. In a workplace or professional context, if the reason for the action or statement was not of a professional nature, considerations in the realm of immersion (maintaining professional standards) and participation (respect for colleagues, business partners and customers) come into play. Of course it may be that the professional context is an artistic one where the intent to offend with a view to provoking a reaction is deemed intrinsic to the art, for example in comedy. Since the considerations here are largely of a professional nature, it should be possible for rules to be devised and published in advance defining where the boundaries are in such situations. Some flexibility in this area is already in place whereby “trigger warnings” are offered to alert those with particular sensitivities that they may wish not to attend/participate. This gives the freedom to the artist and audience to engage with potentially “offensive” material while avoiding the accusation of insensitivity to those who might have taken umbrage.

An area meriting particular consideration here is that of schools using educational materials which some parents deem inappropriate for their children to be exposed to. This situation relates mainly to the realm of participation, where typically the values of the parents clash with the school’s (or teachers’) sense of responsibility to widen children’s minds by exposing children to perspectives other than those of which their parents may approve. This is essentially a conflict between the right of a particular community to propagate its values internally and the goal of creating harmony between communities by fostering mutual understanding. These are not necessarily in conflict, but feelings sometimes run high. The usual procedure which has been adopted is to provide opt-outs whereby parents can ask that their own children not be exposed to certain ideas which they find inimical or offensive. This would appear to be a sensible compromise whereby neither side’s values are held to be paramount and there is no reason why this policy should not be continued as society becomes more multi-cultural. The further demand is sometimes made that schools should completely avoid using materials which some parents (or indeed children) find offensive. This would appear problematic insofar as adoption of this approach as a general rule would mean that the school was no longer in charge of its curriculum. This would have an undesirable knock-on impact in the realm of immersion where the school is arguably in the better position to make value judgements than the parents of a subset of the pupils.

Another objection which is sometimes raised in relation to the “right to offend” is that potentially offensive material shared in a context where it was ascertained no one present would be likely to take offence might end up being shared more widely. Consideration here must again be made in the realm of participation, this time in relation to the question of who the “audience” of the material is and who is exposing that audience to offence. It is sometimes suggested in a blanket manner that we should be held accountable in the event of anyone taking offence to anything we said at any point in our life (this accountability sometimes even considered to extend beyond our lifespan). This would appear to be unworkable in principle so not an idea I shall engage with further here. The converse argument is that one should only be held responsible for exposing the immediate audience to material: if a unilateral decision is made by one of those exposed to further share material and offence is caused, arguably it is the conveyor rather than the author of the material who should be held accountable. This would appear to be a much more workable proposition. A further argument might be made that this eventuality should have been foreseen by the author of the material. In a professional context, this is a valid consideration, but in essence one we have already dealt with in relation to the intentionality behind the original action or statement. However, if material is published behind a paywall for those who have paid to have access to the kind of material there published, should offence be caused by someone posting the content on, this is arguably a breach of copyright so the argument that the conveyor rather than the original publisher should be held responsible for the offence is easier to make.

Cancel Culture

There is then the further question of what, if anything, should be done in the event that it is deemed the offence caused was intentional or else should have been foreseen and could have been avoided, but there are no professional or legal sanctions available. This is often the scenario where Cancel Culture is enacted, with pressure put on organisations with which the alleged offender is affiliated or employed to revoke privileges or employment. Often to avoid reputational and/or commercial damage, organisations capitulate and the offender is “hung out to dry.” It is notable that, somewhat disingenuously, the feared damage is rarely cited as the reason but rather some technical breach by the alleged offender in relation to the terms of their engagement. This would suggest that this area needs to be revisited with some tightening up of procedures to ensure that individuals are only sanctioned for actual breaches of rules or guidelines (our stated concern here being instances where such have not occurred) not in response to pressure from “the mob.” Intervention by industry/charity regulators would be one possible avenue.

This leaves open the problem that the “cancelled” individual may find it difficult to enter into future contracts, with their livelihood consequently threatened. This may seem to many a disproportionate response to an instance of offence having been caused. But for those engaged in the cancelling, such reflection as they have done on the matter clearly leads them to conclude otherwise. If their number is sufficiently large it might be argued that their opinion should hold sway. The problem with this is that, should we decide to submit to such pressure in the absence of any obvious alternative path, the ability is lost to prevent similar pressure being brought to bear when no clear culpability on the part of the targeted individual has been established, since the mob here have become judge, jury and executioner. Our deliberations here help expose deeper underlying issues but do not necessarily lead us to a clear outcome as to how we should best proceed to address them.

Freedom of speech

We should not part this discussion in the realm of participation without saying a word about the closely related matter of freedom of speech. This has been robustly defended down through the ages by numerous writers. For some recent commentary the reader is referred to Don Trubshaw’s recent essay “Do you have the right to be wrong? A defence of free inquiry” (2020) and, for a more extended discussion touching on many of the issues raised here, the highly acclaimed book by Claire Fox “I STILL Find that Offensive!” (Biteback Publishing, 2018). I shall not seek myself to elaborate on this subject in any detail here. Suffice it to say that freedom of speech has long been viewed as a good in itself which is worthy of protection on its own merits. Fox argues in her book that this right has been compromised by the increasing number of people adopting the Cancel Culture approach, seeing the prevention of offence as a greater good than that of freedom of speech. She cites in her preface the extravagant claim of Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik that:

freedom of speech is no longer a value. It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates.

‘Hate speech leads to violence. Why would liberals defend it?’ The Guardian, 22 March 2018.

Cox fears that the increasing prevalence of Cancel Culture enacted against a minority is having a chilling effect on the free speech of all of us:

This climate of censoriousness effectively locks down opinions, dictating that there can be no debate off script about certain issues. This has a chilling effect on everyone…every time we accept that certain subjects are taboo or every time someone is made to recant, the rest of us know we are being told to be careful what we say, and who we offend.

op. cit.

Similar concerns are raised by Pluckrose and Lindsay:

At best, [Cancel Culture] has a chilling effect on the culture of free expression, which has served liberal democracies well for more than two centuries, as good people self-censor to avoid saying the “wrong” things. At worst, it is a malicious form of bullying and—when institutionalized—a kind of authoritarianism in our mindset.

op. cit.

Here we face a fundamental incommensurability between the position of the upholders of free speech and that of the postmodernist Social Justice Warriors who seek to overthrow it in the name of preventing offence being caused. Whereas the position of the former has a moral consistency to it whereby the expression of all opinions is deemed worthy of protection, that of the latter is extremely partial insofar as one’s right of protection is, as we have discussed, dependent on the victim status accorded one on the intersectionality scale. But such is inconsistent with the postmodernists’ fundamental assertion that there is no ultimate basis to assert the rightness of any one value system over any other: to buy into the view that their perspective trumps that of the free speech advocates, one has to accept the pre-eminence of the postmodernist position from the outset, which clearly the defenders of free speech do not do. Notably to press their case in a more consistent manner here they would have to argue that the advocates of free speech are ipso facto privileged individuals disrespectful of the rights of victim classes. The reason for Nesrine Malik expressing the disparaging view of free speech advocates quoted above becomes understandable in this light.

More generally, postmodernists face the further problem that in establishing their intersectionality scale, they must argue from evidence arising in the realm of subjective reflection. If they wish to justify any particular portrayal of relative victimhood which they seek to have respected in the realm of participation, the onus is on them to supply compelling arguments from within the realm of participation to back this up. In the absence of such, the argument that their view should be allowed to sweep aside the well-established pre-eminence of arguments in favour of the right to freedom of expression is difficult to sustain. Notably this right is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948),

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 19

there being no corresponding “right not to be offended” recorded in this document.

A final possibility is that considerations from the realm of embeddedness may come into play. This is the case with dietary matters. For example it is commonplace in some parts of the world for cat- and dog-meat to be consumed. Many elsewhere find this objectionable and indeed have taken action to prohibit it in their own countries. This raises the question of whether someone should be prevented or discouraged from enjoying a particular kind of food because others are offended by the idea of that food being eaten. Similar issues arise in relation to vegans taking umbrage at the consumption by humans of any kind of animal product. As in our consideration of the definition of “audience” above, this kind of issue is perhaps best addressed by looking through the lens in the other direction: rather than asking whether there is a right to offend through our dietary choices, it is more fruitful to ask whether members of one group should be allowed to constrain what members of a second group eat or enjoy based on the moral stance upheld in the first group? When we think of all the dietary taboos which exist in the world amongst diverse groups (some going back millennia) and consider what the consequences might be of allowing these groups to impose constraints on others outside their group, we quickly come to the conclusion that in relation to this topic the allowance of offence is on balance the lesser of two evils.

Conclusion

Much more could be said about where the boundaries lie in relation to the “right to offend” by consideration of the application of the engagement paradigm to other types of behaviour and other contexts. But I believe I have probably covered enough ground at this point to illustrate the potential of the paradigm to shed light on the multi-faceted complexity of the issue. Whether you prefer multi-faceted complexity to the Occam’s razor of the postmodernist approach of reducing everything to the question of relative position on the intersectionality scale of victimhood, I leave you to decide. It would of course not be in keeping with the paradigm I am putting forward for me to assume the right to resolve this matter for you.

About the Author

Colin Turfus
Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 12 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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