I am trained as a lawyer, and my profession is the education of advocates. Among the most important lessons I have learned, which I share here, is that some arguments mean virtually nothing once analyzed. The two responses I would encourage us, all of us myself included, to retire are: “that proposal is controversial” and “I am offended by that statement.” These communicate only our own feelings, not anything about the merits of any policy or any expression. They frame intellectual inquiry as assessments of sincerity. They discourage our collective discernment.
Whether this meta-proposition is controversial or offensive, it is neither liberal nor conservative. It is, instead, an insistence we do not reduce our values to rules of etiquette. “Controversial” and “offensive” are reports of people’s perceptions or even a single person’s perspective. They are not necessarily descriptions of the world as it is.
Yet people of all backgrounds react superficially by saying X is controversial or Y is offensive. I have done it too. That propensity motivates me to warn. The more important issue is whether X or Y is true or right or useful or at least interesting. Even some ideas that are eventually rejected, because they are meritless, contribute to the ongoing discussion of the public square or internet forum. They provoke thought because they are incorrect but inspiring.
Almost all movements that are original, which come to persuade us and perhaps even become the prevailing understanding, start off as minority phenomenon with the power to shock. Here are several examples, spanning a range so as to appeal to people of various political preferences. Christianity in the time of Christ was radical. It resisted Rome. The Nazis deemed books and painting “degenerate,” with terrible consequences beyond aesthetic priorities. They banned it and burned it, before then attacking those who created it. Opponents of interracial marriage only a half-century ago and objectors to same-sex marriage today rely on their own aversion in an attempt to impose general norms. They regard it repugnant to witness a black-white couple displaying affection that would be normal among two whites or two men strolling down the sidewalk arm-in-arm.
To shy away from “controversy” and be eager to take “offense” is to compromise our principles.
In each of these instances, we might take the side of the controversial and offensive, though no doubt some would distinguish among them. It is not the Christians but the Romans who would have indicated disapproval that the faith was “controversial” to others and “offensive” to the government. Now we celebrate the Christians’ embrace of their convictions despite the stigma associated with it long ago. None praise the Romans for their persecutions. Likewise, we honor the Jewish authors and artists, not the Nazis who oppressed them. And so on.
The logical fallacy of “that is controversial” is that it is circular. It can be ginned up too easily. If we accepted that anything “controversial” ought to be condemned as such, then we have acquiesced to the heckler’s veto. The weakness of “that is offensive” is that it is inherently subjective. It is merely opinion. It would render us too sensitive to stand up and speak out, about what compels us and needs to be declared.
There are better alternatives. Some of what is controversial or offensive is worse than that. Is false, which is the real problem. Or it is irrational.
When someone uses a racial slur, especially if it is repeated after a tempered explanation of its harm, we need not resort to calling the matter “controversial” or exclaiming that it is “offensive.” We can acknowledge their right to free speech, which also protects our criticism in turn. Such words inflict damage. They incite violence.
Better that the bigot’s attitudes be exposed to deserved ridicule. To allow them to utter nonsense is not to relieve them of appropriate consequences.
Democracy depends on deliberation. It demands that we have processes for disagreement, more than agreement. There is a distinction between on the one hand being discriminating in the sense of exercising judgment to differentiate, which is legitimate and appropriate; and on the other hand being discriminatory in the sense of expressing prejudice based on irrelevant criteria, which is wrong in virtually all contexts. To be discriminating is to be able to recognize what is discriminatory. To shy away from “controversy” and be eager to take “offense” is to compromise our principles.
My request, more a reminder to myself, is to remain unmoved by controversy and offense. To yield to them is to give up on genuine dialogue. They are intended to stop the conversation.