Alex McFarland phoned me today to talk about a few details for Truth for a New Generation, the major apologetics conference coming up this weekend in Charlotte. (I hope you can come!) Alex is the organizer for this conference, as he has been for many others like it. While we were on the phone he told me a hair-raising tale of getting a simple ad approved at the Charlotte Observer. You can read the story for yourself in his editorial in the Christian Post.
In a word, the newspaper refused to run the ad because (as Alex reports it) the editor thought it “would almost certainly offend my gay, Muslim, and agnostic readers.” The dangerously offensive language consisted in three questions:
Is same sex marriage morally wrong?
Are Islam and Christianity the same?
Are godless people going to destroy America?
That’s it. Just questions: provocative, to be sure, but what’s unusual about that in an advertisement? I’ll let you read how they eventually worked it through. It occurs to me that we have a problem with the word “offend.” It comes in at least three different forms and one additional distorted version, and we’ve forgotten how to tell them apart.
First there is to offend, as in, to give or to make offense, or, to do that which is inherently offensive (to a reasonable person affected by it). It’s hard to believe that these three questions would in themselves be offensive. Same-sex “marriage” advocates can raise the question whether it’s morally wrong without giving themselves offense. Muslims know without any defensiveness that Islam is not the same as Christianity. Atheists can ask the third question and scoff at it.
They’re just questions. They’re live questions: people are asking them — and answering them — all the time. Where is the offense in asking them again?
Then there is being offended, or taking offense. Apparently the Observer was concerned that gays, Muslims, and/or atheists would take offense at these questions. The editor could have been exactly right: maybe some people would have taken offense. Surely, though the Observer has run ads and articles that have offended some readers: in fact, I’m sure the paper has run pieces that have actually given offense. There’s something odd about their reticence to do so this once.
Could it be that what they really meant was not, “this would … offend” some people, but rather, “Some people might get really angry”? It could indeed mean that. Alex says he was told, “the ads could not run because they could ‘Subject the Observer to a lawsuit.'” It’s not much of a conjectural leap from there to “some readers might get mad.” I’m sure the editor would have been right, if he had said that. It would have been more honest than “this might offend” — especially since the content of the ad wasn’t actually offensive (see “Offense” and “Offense” above).
Finally there is mounting an offense. That’s what some people do when they’re angry. It’s what the gay-rights lobby in particular has done: they’ve undertaken a coldly planned strategic of attack against those who disagree. (It’s not difficult to document.) That’s what lawsuits are, when they’re raised against simple questions that the “offended” parties feel more than free to bring up themselves.
Where Aggression Defeats Discussion
This is not about the Observer or its editors: it’s about the wider Western culture of strategically taking offense and mounting offenses in return, strictly for rhetorical and political advantage. It’s a ploy that plays on carelessness over the word “offend.” It’s been going on so long that I think some of us have fallen for it, and we think that whenever someone is “offended,” someone has “offended” them. But it ain’t (as the song says) necessarily so.
When this happens, something much more important gets lost than mere accuracy in language. In this case, a newspaper nearly shut down a prominent voice in its own community.
When an offense (in the third sense above) is mounted against a claimed “offense,” power plays ensue.Aggression wins out over discussion. Dialogue is shouted down, or rather shut down, often forcibly.
This is no way to run a civil society.