Tom Gilson

Offense, Offense, Anger, and Offense

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.

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17 thoughts on “Offense, Offense, Anger, and Offense

  1. Greg Koukl encountered something very similar when people were prevented from distributing promotional posters for a talk that Koukl was giving at Mount Royal University. The talk was entitled “Is it intolerant to say that Jesus is the only way ?”.

    According to the campus human rights group the problem was:

    1) The title was divisive
    2) The sub-question, which asked “if choosing a religion was merely a matter of preference like choosing vanilla or chocolate ice-cream”, apparently had racial overtones.

    You may now set faces to stun.

    See about 5 mins into this talk –

  2. Tom Gilson –

    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.

    I’d like to make explicit the point that this ‘ploy’ is not unknown to the religious, even the Christian, among us, too.

    I know you didn’t claim that Christians never do this, but I thought another example or two might help underscore your point. This is not the way to run a civil society.

  3. Ray, I agree, except for one thing: the purpose of a bus is not to exchange thoughts and ideas. The bus company has an advertising policy that it might be following in a completely consistent manner, rejecting every possible controversial topic. I don’t know if that’s the case or not; it’s impossible to tell from here. If that is the case, though, then that atheist ad should have been rejected, as should other controversy-provoking ads.

    One of your links said the governor was offended. I think that was rather thin-skinned on his part, so in that regard you are right: unless the bus company had been uneven in its application of policy, which we have no reason (from these reports) to believe.

  4. It really was two different examples, though. The first was in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, Iowa governor Chet Culver was responding to ads in that state.

    As to consistency, there is this line from the first (rather short) article I linked to: “this is the same transit system that runs “God Bless America” on its bus tickers”.

  5. A bus company running “God Bless America” on it’s bus tickers is not the same and does not relate to the decision to not to run the “Atheists” add. “God Bless America” is acceptable as part of “American Civil Religion” a concept that has been affirmed by the US Supreme Court in dozens of cases (e.g., “In God We Trust”, “One nation under God”).

  6. I don’t know if there ever was a golden age of tolerance but it seems to me that the problem is that the meaning of the word tolerance has change to something very narrow. “You can either agree with X, Y and Z or you can shut up. If you persist then you are being intolerant”.

    Now it seems that merely being offended – heck, even the possibility of causing offence – is seen as justification for shutting down speech.

  7. Seems like bully tactics to me. I thought the press was supposed to be a conduit for all viewpoints and open to all sides of an issue.

  8. BillT – So, you agree with the court that phrases like “God Bless America” “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content”?

    In any case that transit system had in the past run ads regarding controversial topics. In this case it seems the word ‘atheists’ is more offensive than those for a magazine that promotes white supremacy and Holocaust denial.

  9. @ william brown – whatever gave you that impression? In terms of religious news reporting, GetReligion do an admirable job of pointing out some of the less pardonable biases that exist in the media.

    @ Ray – while I agree that the whole atheist ad thing is beyond silly, why is it, I wonder, that you think that white supremacy is less offensive then atheism? Do you know, for example, that they simply were not aware of the supremacist connection and thus made a mistake?

  10. Ray,

    Whether such phrases have “…lost through rote repetition any significant religious content” is in the eye of the beholder I would think. That they are acceptable expressions of “American Civil Religion” as confirmed by the SCOTUS is the law of the land.

    And that the bus line ran ads “for a magazine that promotes white supremacy and Holocaust denial” is not what the article you linked says. It says the magazine in question had “…links to Holocaust denialist websites and white supremacist information.” That the bus company ran the add knowing what was in those links is never alleged, completely unlikely yet certainly implied. Seems a little blurring of the facts isn’t beyond Mr. Vacula. Not, of course, that that kind of condemnation by innuendo isn’t pretty standard practice across the MSM.

  11. BillT –

    That they are acceptable expressions of “American Civil Religion” as confirmed by the SCOTUS is the law of the land.

    I think the reasoning there is as specious as you probably feel the reasoning was in Roe v. Wade. (And forgive me, but I don’t see where you actually answered the question I posed.)

    But for now, it is indeed the law. Of course, COLTS stopped doing that after it was pointed out, so… hm. In any case…

    It says the magazine in question had “…links to Holocaust denialist websites and white supremacist information.” The bus company can’t really be expected to check every link on every site they advertise.

    If they’re going to have a policy, they do have to perform due diligence. Speaking of which, as it turns out, they finally decided not to allow any ads related to religion whatsoever. Still not a way to run a civil society, so far as I can see… but easier to enforce, I suppose.

  12. Ray,

    The legal basis for “American Civil Religion” covers dozes of cases that have been brought before the SCOTUS. That you’re not impressed is neither here nor there. As far as my lack of respect for Roe v. Wade I would stand on the fact that it has less of a legal basis for it’s conclusion than did Dred Scott. And I don’t see any question from you that I didn’t address. Could you be more specific?

  13. BillT –

    As far as my lack of respect for Roe v. Wade I would stand on the fact that it has less of a legal basis for it’s conclusion than did Dred Scott.

    And I have the same opinion about the “Civil Religion” concept as it’s been developed. (In practice, I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it, though.)

    The question I asked was if you – that is to say, BillT – agreed that “God Bless America” has “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content”. In other words, I’m asking what your specific eye beholds.

  14. As far as “God Bless America” I’d say probably 50/50. Depends on the context and somewhat on one’s worldview.

    As far as the Roe v. Wade verses “American Civil Religion” there are some significant differences. There is nothing in the decisions defining “American Civil Religion” that require anything but a fairly standard reading of the rights granted in the Constitution. Saying they have less of a legal basis for their conclusion than did Dred Scott would be nothing but empty rhetoric. Roe v. Wade, on the other hand required the Court to invent a whole new category of rights that had then and have now no jurisprudence to support them. The Court basically had to rewrite the Constitution (a power not granted to them in the Constitution) to come to their conclusion. Thus, saying it has less of a legal basis for its conclusion than does Dred Scott is actually supportable by the facts.

  15. Robert tried to leave this comment a few days ago, and it didn’t work for some reason. I just now got his email asking for help. With apologies for a few days’ delay, the result of being away from my main computer, here is what he had to say:

    Although I agree these are important, relevant questions (worthy to be discussed) and think the ad should have been allowed to run unchanged, Alex’s story of offense is incomplete. Until he tells us what they “settled” on (his story leaves out the actual ad wording that was run) this could be a bit of the standard tit for tat that regularly goes on in many aspects of public life. Sure there’s likely some bullying going on but offense at that is way overplayed these days. Can you tell us where they landed?

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