Recursive offensiveness

Level 1: I am offended at what you said.

Level 2: I am offended that you took offense at what I said.

Level 3: I am offended that you would imagine that my taking offense is the truly offensive aspect of this scenario.

Level 4: I am offended that you are so offended that I would be offended by your being offended.

We could go on, but let’s stop here for a moment and analyze. Level 1 is obviously the most natural and straightforward. Level 2 is also relatable, though more specialized. I can recall times when I was admittedly in the wrong and nonetheless felt legitimately aggrieved that the person’s response was disproportionate.

What’s puzzling, however, is that Level 2 is apparently growing in popularity by the day. This increase of recursive offense seems to stem from what one calls “political correctness” — i.e., the fact that we are now expected to take seriously and account for the feelings of groups who could previously be casually slandered with impunity. The truly offensive thing in this scheme isn’t what I said, it’s that you people are allowed to respond. Why, back in my day, etc.

Where we’re starting to lose people is Level 3: namely, the position that deploying meta-offense to “politically correct” incursions is actually more offensive than being forced to recognize that someone else has been offended, and indeed more offensive than the original occasion of offense itself. While I agree with this position and actually think it may count as urgent to get the message out, the extremely “meta” nature of the complaint is bound to confuse and alienate less invested bystanders.

Yet I think there is a possible strategic advantage to staking out Level 3 whenever possible, using it as a kind of judo attack. While we are likely to lose some people initially, I believe that people inclined toward the Level 2 move will generally rise to the bait and go in for the truly convoluted and incomprehensible Level 4. The number of people who would be turned off by this dispiriting performance is likely greater than the number of people turned off by our invocation of Level 3. Indeed, it is likely that once goaded into taking a Level 4 position, the former adherent of Level 2 will be unable to shut up about it and will reveal their addiction to being offended, being “the real victim,” etc., etc. Whatever goodwill the Level 2 move generated will quickly be exhausted, leaving bystanders to wonder: Hey, maybe those Level 1 people had a point? Maybe Level 2, despite its objections to the oversensitivity and prickliness of others, is the true case of unjustified sensitivity? Maybe the much sought-after “real victim” is the actual victim of the initial offense, rather than the person who caused the offense?

And maybe Level 3 has a point, too? Should I just always go with odd-numbered levels of offense recursion? Yes, that will be my rule of thumb: odd-numbered levels of recursion all the way.

8 thoughts on “Recursive offensiveness

  1. You’ve built an argument using the logical category of “offense” “offensive” and observed a spiral of recursion.
    Looking outside your argument it’s possible to redefine “offense” as “defense and “defensive” and it’s not a spiral anymore; it’s simply back and forth. Someone is being “defensive”

    defensive |diˈfensiv|
    1 used or intended to defend or protect: troops in defensive positions.
    • [ attrib. ] (in sports) relating to or intended as defense.
    2 very anxious to challenge or avoid criticism: he was very defensive about that side of his life.

    The question is, who?

    Formal logic is not philosophy; it’s just formal logic.

  2. Level 0: I am offended that there is such a thing as offense. I thought we lived in a post-race, post gender, etc. society!


    Level 0: The system of language/privilege/patriarchy/etc. needs to be addressed and dismantled, but getting outside of the even/odd levels of recursion is difficult if not impossible. (This may in fact be Level √-1.)

  3. Question about terminology: shouldn’t it be *iterations* of offence? Recursive offence would be something like the act of taking offence at this very act of taking offence, no?

  4. I think it counts as recursion because one is offended by an act of taking offense, rather than by any substantive offensive act. Offense caused by offense. It’s not fully recursive in the way you describe, but it is recursive to a degree.

  5. Extending and complementing seth edenbaum’s point, we can take note of the specific language used here in the post and the phrasings I pointed out earlier in the comments I wrote under/following the post about libertarians and right-wing people, who are likely the conceptual, and oftentimes seem to be the only, paradigms of White Males or White Dudes around here (despite whiteness oftentimes showing up among liberal and leftist folks in eye-rolling ways just as much, as comments around here show). Note that all the positions taken in the imaginary voice of Level 2 are exactly how Adam talks in the voice of white males, and the white response to political correctness seems the obvious target. Note also that much earlier Adam defined white identity along the lines of “prickly defensiveness” and how prickliness and oversensitivity define Level 2.

    Level 3, then, is not only the redeployment of offense towards the corrections officers of the politically correct (that is, the people to whom Level 2s are responding to), but it also runs the risk of appearing indistinguishable from those who offend the Level 1s. In other words, the Level 3 individual sees how the CO of the PC prison knows better and needs to let up some on the new folks who just got to this social club while also respecting the insensitivities of the bigot who offended the Level 1s. These new folks, who are always new to the foreign in their lives, have categorically the sin of ignorance: they don’t yet know what’s going on. So they repeat bad jokes or bad statements, not understanding their offense, not until someone patiently (or not!) explains it to them. Then, there’s a chance. Some of those bigots go on to learn. Some of them don’t. Some of them grow into Level 2s.

    This post was preceded by the conversation about deBoer, right? —so we have these concerns about political surveillance and correction occurring in the social media conversations taking place, and that’s why I say “corrections officers.” If we’re living in the analogously parallel equivalent of the gulags, even jokingly so, then the institutions the rightwings identify from the outside as prisons need to have, on the inside, those people who maintain “party discipline” —or at least just order. Thus, the people who offend the Level 2s are the people who “reach for any weapon at hand to police boundaries and show themselves to be better or more in the know than someone else.”

    Buried in this analysis of the dialectic of offense, then, is the recognition not only of the Best Defense strategy as flawed: “The best defense is a good offense” becomes “The best defense is the worst offense” becomes “The worst defense is the best offense.” The ambiguity of Level 4 leaves the next evolution of the phrase to the reader. What we also are given to ponder is the subtle implication that maybe—and this is just a maybe—the rightwings and libertarians are right to be offended by the attempts some liberals and leftwings to become just as policing themselves, policework and enforcement that reaches for weapons, rather than hugs, or beers, or pipes, or blessings, or whatever people use to bond together these days, all the days.

    But as Adam said in the other post, leftists or liberals policing their boundaries, —using the weapons of power they have “at hand”, which if this category of weaponry includes public denunciation certainly includes what language we use while referring to one another’s posts— that’s “likely rare!”, the bang, though parenthetical, in the original.

    Maybe that’s how it looks from a certain level.

  6. It’s the turn to the imaginative modality: “you would imagine.”

    Anticipatory offense (“I am offended you would . . .”) requires virtualizing the connection between others’ thinkinglife to their bodybehavior, particularly where the others are themselves taken by the Level 3 as imagining. It’s a fruitful choice, but it’s also not thinking, judging, rationalizing, discriminating, screening, filtering, noticing, determining, working out, conceiving, concluding. Fruitful, because philosophy has long had a storied history of predicting while dismissing what others imagine, but has a harder time of accepting what others conclude —the fact that all virtualization of other perspectives is itself an imaginative framesetting gets lost to the philosophical prejudice against others’ imaginations. (“Do as I say, not as I . . . “) But if we change the word to any other of the various ways we can speak about how people move from “premises” to “conclusions,” and we drop the auxiliary verb, the Level 3 is less “meta” and more, as with seth’s point, responding to a specific movement in an argument.

    (I’ve noticed over the years how manipulative the modal and auxiliary verbs are [“I wouldn’t mind it if you didn’t” or “It would be good if you did”], so I tend to be sensitive to their use.)

    Does any of this make sense? I like what you’re doing with this commentary on how comments change and alter the conversation away from the initial offense, and focusing on how offense starts in our own sensitivities, our own vulnerabilities, is a good way to focus on how to change and alter our conversating away from offending models —those conversational models built up on challenge, force, pressure, the combative or the destructive, where victory or winning are the goals for why we overcome communication differences.

    Judo is a good metaphor in this context, since it’s not the direct application of force or violence to achieve an end but the redirection of violence already in motion, but maybe bonsai, or maturing with peers, or learning how to dance? Offense/defense becomes step forward/slide left; turn the soil/lie fallow; taking turns/taking breaks. Something like that.

  7. I think we need to stop using “offensive” for people saying things that take part in systematic oppression. Swearing is offensive, but kind of fun and mostly harmless, while using slurs actually contributes to objective oppression. Using this terminology, theres really no sense in moving to level 2, as rather than stating than someone has taken offense at someone taking offense, level 2 becomes taking offense at the fact that you yourself have contributed to oppressing someone, which sounds kinda worse than the same emotion felt by some people upon hearing the most fun way to express surprise.

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