This meme in various forms continually pops up on social media. It’s a great one-liner, apparently from a debate Fry had with Christopher Hitchens some years ago.
I haven’t watched the debate; it’s not of interest to me at this time. I am, however, going to comment on the meme as an object in its own right. I don’t know the context; I don’t know what Fry’s larger point was; that’s been long lost in the lifeline of the meme anyways. Let’s look at the claim as it lives in social media.
“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”
It is, indeed very common to hear people say, “I’m offended by that”—or words to that effect. (More often I hear “that’s offensive”—rather a different claim—I’ll come back to that later.)
There are two separate claims made in the Fry quotation. First, he denies that there is any relationship between offense and rights. Second, he says that claims to offense have no meaning. Let’s deal with the first claim first.
If by rights, Fry means “legal rights” then Fry is basically correct. One does not have a legal claim to be protected from offense (at least in general). Hate laws are framed as responses to harmful speech which is rather a different matter than offensive speech. Speech that is offensive is rarely regulated by law unless it is both hateful and harmful. In most western countries, racially charged speech that is likely to make it difficult for some people to go about their business in a normal way is considered to be harmful, and is thus a matter of legal rights. But harm is usually a high threshold, and that’s not what this quotation seems to be about.
By “it (a claim of offense) has no meaning” Fry cannot be speaking literally. If the word “offensive” were truly meaningless (like, say, the word “snafdudle”), then the quotation would be meaningless. That can’t be what he’s saying. Rather, he seems to be saying that the claim is morally meaningless, and in this he is completely mistaken.
Offense is a personal affront. It’s like an insult or a lie; it’s something that breaks down the bond of trust between two people. In this sense it is highly morally relevant. You are not legally bound not to lie or insult your friends, but on a personal level, you’re a jerk if you do so. Many things are morally important without being bound by law. Offense is one of them.
Now if I offend you and you point it out to me, the onus (morally, not legally) is to find out what went wrong. Unless I was deliberately trying to offend, something has gone awry with my communication. After discussing it with you, I have a decision to make: should I apologize? Was this something I should not have said (and should avoid saying in the future)? And of course, there are no simple answers to those questions.
What does all this have to do with education? It seems to me that teachers must be particularly sensitive to offense for a couple of reasons. First of all, there is a power differential between teachers and students. The teacher’s words carry a weight that student’s words do not. Careless words from a teacher can hurt far more deeply than careless words from a peer. Second, as I’ve mentioned many times before, students (in a K-12 public system) are conscripts, not volunteers. They can’t just walk out; they can’t simply choose another class to attend. They are obliged to listen to the teacher, and that places some moral obligations on the teacher.
Offense is tricky. Now that I’ve got the gears turning, I know I’ll have to return to this another day. The ideas are only beginning to take shape.