Offensive language

I recently happened onto a family dispute unfolding on Facebook wherein a young child, in the course of a seemingly unrelated debate, uttered the words “I think that guy is a fagot”. To which another family member, who happens to live in an openly homosexual lifestyle quickly reprimanded the kid for using offensive language.

I’ve heard this line of reasoning before, but this time I took a minute to ponder what it is that constitutes offensive language.

Is it really any language that we find offensive? Judging from the current politically correct climate, it seems that way.

Our current cultural climate aside, I want to propose what I believe is a more reasonable assessment of what constitutes “offensive language”.

Language is offensive or not based on what it describes, not what it does.

Language that offends my sensibilities is not, itself, offensive. It is only offensive insofar as what it depicts is, itself, offensive. So, for example, pornography is offensive not because it hurts some people’s feelings, but because it is writing about prostitutes, something that is morally wrong.

Likewise, calling someone a “fagot” is offensive, not because it causes people caught up in a homosexual lifestyle any emotional damage. But because what it describes, a homosexual lifestyle, is morally wrong.

I believe this understanding of offensive language was quite normal in times past. The problem is that in our post-modern culture where we have largely bought into the notion of moral relativism, it has become impossible to define what constitutes “offensive language” outside of what it does to a person’s emotional state. Rather than recognizing a word or phrase to depict something that is immoral and then rightly taking offense at the depiction, even negatively, of something immoral we have reversed the process so that anything that offends our subjective and ever changing understanding of right and wrong is then said to be offensive.

In the first instance, offensive language is clearly defined according to an objective moral standard. Therefore, what could be considered to fall under the umbrella of “offensive language” is limited and easily understood.

In the modern interpretation, however, offensive language is defined by the hearer according to their own personal (and highly subjective) moral standard. This means that in the modern understanding, “offensive language” can constitute damn1 near anything.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
-Philippians 4:8

  1. Hell is morally repulsive too, that is why both ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ are justly categorized as offensive language. []
Share

25 responses to “Offensive language

  1. By your definition, the words "murder", "rape" "battery", etc are offensive. Therefore, I think you have failed in defining the term.

    • Those words also describe offensive behavior and have also historically been conspicuously absent from "polite conversation".

      After re-reading this this morning (I scheduled this post some time back), I think it is helpful to note that I don't think that just because a word or phrase is offensive it automatically ought to never be used.

      On the contrary, sometimes it is wholly necessary to, when describing moral wrongs, to employ otherwise offensive language in order to properly describe it.

      • You seem to be taking liberty with definitions of words to make a point. It isn't illuminating in the least.

        If I call someone whose parents were unwed a "bastard" that would be offensive to the person. The person did no moral wrong.

        And in your "fagot" example, if I called that person a homosexual instead, that would not be offensive, even though I am describing the same behavior/lifestyle.

        It seems to me you are leaving out 2 of the more important elements of "offense": intent of the puprorted offender, and reaction of the recipient.

        If you were looking for a way to say that gay people deserve to be treated offensively because you believe their actions are immoral, you could have at least been up front about that.

        • If you were to call someone a "bastard" because they were the illegitimate offspring of unwed parents you would be recognizing the offence in the actions their parents undertook which led to their creation.

          Likewise, if you were to call someone a homosexual rather than the slang of "faggot" you would be recognizing a sexual practice that is offensive, not to our subjective sensibilities, but according to an objective moral standard.

          The point of this post is that either we deem something offensive or not based on the behavior or action or situation it describes or else we define it according to our own subjective sensibilities.

          If it is the former, which I argue is the only definition that carries with it any meaning, then it matters not 1. what the communicator's intent is or 2. what the recipient's understanding is (for example, homosexual is an offensive term even if homosexuals decide to be proud about their aberrant sexual practices).

          As to your last comment, I am not saying that gay people deserve to be treated offensively. Though that too seems to indicate that you think there exists some sort of objective moral standard by which one ought not to cause offense to someone else (and I would really be curious to know what that standard is). No, what I want to convey is that the lifestyle of homosexuals is, itself, an offense and it is illogical and incoherent to claim that recognizing that offense is, itself, offensive.

          • "If you were to call someone a "bastard" because they were the illegitimate offspring of unwed parents you would be recognizing the offence in the actions their parents undertook which led to their creation. "

            But you'd also be offending the innocent creation itself. So again, a counterexample to your definition.

            "Likewise, if you were to call someone a homosexual rather than the slang of "faggot" you would be recognizing a sexual practice that is offensive, not to our subjective sensibilities, but according to an objective moral standard."

            But the recipient wouldn't be offended, because their moral standard doesn't see "homosexual" as wrong.

            If I go to the bathroom and do my business and call what's in the toilet "feces" or "sh&t" by your definition both words are either offensive or neither are, depending on your moral opinion of the subject matter. This would run completely contradictory to day-to-day usage of language and offensiveness.

          • You also seem to think you have an unassailable stance on what this "objectvie moral standard" should be. How can you defend this stance? And your definition of offensive doesn't hold up given there isn't 100% agreement on what the standard the term is judged against is..

          • An objective standard, by definition, does not need any agreement or assent at all. It exists independently of whether anyone agrees with it or not.

            You are right, however, that I am assuming the objective moral standard here as being the one established in the character of God and revealed in Scripture. That point is, however, beyond the scope of this thread. If you wish, however, we can revisit
            1. the existence of objective moral standards and
            2. what best fits the criteria of an objective moral standard
            at a later date.

          • "But you'd also be offending the innocent creation itself."

            I'm sorry but I think you have completely missed my whole point. Calling them a bastard may hurt their feelings but it is hardly the same as offending them since it is merely a recognition of a factual circumstance. The offense here does not like primarily in the fact that someone recognized the sinful circumstances of their existence but that the charge is accurate. The primary offense here is not committed by the speaker but by the parents of the illegitimate child.

            "But the recipient wouldn't be offended, because their moral standard doesn't see "homosexual" as wrong. "

            It doesn't matter. If I call someone on death row a murderer and they are, it doesn't matter whether they have decided to delude themselves into thinking that their actions were somehow laudable or not. The fact remains that their actions, which prompted the charge, were offensive to an objective moral standard.

            "If I go to the bathroom and do my business and call what's in the toilet "feces" or "sh&t" by your definition both words are either offensive or neither are, depending on your moral opinion of the subject matter."

            This one is a little more tricky but I pray that you would bear with me.

            We make a distinction between what is useful and what is worthless in all aspects of our lives. Feces and shit are no different. The offence here lies not with the item itself but in the imperfectness of the world wherein they exist. In other words, in a perfect world there would logically be no waste. We can see this a little more clearly in how "manure" and "fertilizer" are more highly esteemed than the former because the latter conjures up a sense of purpose, use, and life where as the former connotates something that is wholly worthless.

            Moreover, the latter terms, particularly the 4 letter variety, are often used not to describe fecal matter but something we deem to be worth as much as fecal matter.

          • I haven't missed your point but rather, have submit several counterexamples that challenge your personal definition of offensive. Reiterating your point isn't making it more persuasive.

  2. Excellent post! I agree with you completely. Offensive language, today, is charcterized as something that offends someone personally, rather than the word describing the action as being offensive.

    Good insight.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Offensive language | Reason To Stand -- Topsy.com

  4. Definitely an interesting post. So would "abortion" be classified as offensive under your definition?

    • Since I take it to be the same as murder, yes. However, even if it were reduced to the removal of biomass it would still be slightly offensive because it would then be dealing with waste, which, in a perfect world, wouldn't exist.

      • Fair enough. What about "contraception"?

        • That depends on the type of contraception used. If it true contraception wherein bodily fluids (mostly sperm) are captured and then discarded then I would say it is only slightly offensive for the same reason any waste is offensive (ie. it is a reminder that we do not live in a perfect world).

          • What about all the Christians who would find it incredibly offensive, even unbiblical?

          • On what grounds do they consider it "incredibly offensive, even unbiblical"?

          • Ah yes, that is the view that the primary purpose of marriage and sex is the production and rearing of children. This view is mostly attributed to Augustine in his otherwise excellent work, City of God.

            I would agree that the primary purpose of marriage is to bring forth and raise children. However, I would disagree that there exists a law in either the old or new testament which goes as far as Augustine and his subsiquent followers do in saying that every time a married couple copulates there must be the possibility of procreation. Even with this view, most adherents still recognize the so the need for family planning so instead of blocking conception outright (through condoms, pull & pray, or spermacide) they resort to indirect methods like measuring biorythems and only copulating during periods of low fertility. This is done mostly to remain within the letter of the law even though it obviously has the same end-result (albiet with a lower statistical success rate) as the outright contraception methods.

            As to the use of contraceptives being offensive or not, it really comes down to whether the descision to not have a child at a given moment is, in fact, morally wrong. Thus the onus is on the proponent of the proposition that contraception is morally wrong to prove that it is, in fact, morally wrong according to a divine moral standard. This means that unless they can clearly show where the action is prohibited according to the moral standard (in this case, the Bible), we cannot condemn the practice in any objective sense. Thus, it may offend the personal preferences of those who ascribe to the notion that any form of birth control is immoral. However, to answer the question as to whether the practice is actually offensive or not requires that we settle the issue on objective moral grounds first.

          • I'm still a little confused, though.

            You said that, "In the first instance, offensive language is clearly defined according to an objective moral standard. Therefore, what could be considered to fall under the umbrella of 'offensive language' is limited and easily understood."

            So if I understand what you said correctly, then it should be easily understood if something is to be considered "offensive language" because it's based on an objective moral standard. Yet, it seems to me that when it comes to contraception, it's not quite "easily understood" as to just whether the action is biblical or not. I mean, you say it is, yet many other Christians say it is not.

          • Also, exactly what is there to "disagree" about here, anyway? It seems to me that it's disagreement about what scripture says. So if you wouldn't mind, just explain to me exactly why so many Christians have disagreed for so long about what scripture says regarding contraception, why they have been unable to come to a single understanding of scripture, and then why one group's understanding should be given preference over the other's. Basically, I'm looking to understand why you're right and they're wrong. I mean, this isn't just a minor disagreement; they're presenting biblical arguments that you say don't exist. And this isn't just a handful of quacks; there are many biblically trained theologians who utterly disagree with you, and I'd like to know who's correct.

          • Offensive language is limited to what can be shown to be morally offensive according to an objective moral standard.

            Consequently the ease of understanding what can and cannot be considered offensive is directly proportional to the understanding one has of the objective moral standard. In my initial post my primary target was the gay and lesbian movement and their assertion that certain words and phrases were "offensive". In that respect their claims of offense are clearly without cause if they have no objective standard to base their claims on or if their claims are compared to the objective moral standard put forth in Scripture.

            This isn't to say that the area of ethics and/or moral reasoning doesn't have finer points which require further study and exploration. However it is important to note that even though I disagree with many of my brothers when it comes to the morality of contraception, we have no disagreement when it comes to the content of our moral reasoning. For example, we both consider narcissism to be wrong, we both consider the Bible to be authoritative, and we both consider the God of Israel to be the author of the objective moral law. Our differences are really centered around the application of that law in when it comes to the area of reproduction.

            Additionally, the existence of a dispute over the law does not have a bearing on the law itself.

            As for why my position should be considered true and the opposing position false. I will try to set aside time to develop a comprehensive case for my position at a later date. However, suffice to say at the present time that the only reason you should consider one position to be better than the other is solely on the strength of the case without any regard for the person presenting the case (ie. appeals to authority are wholly unhelpful).

            As a preview for my case, I'll simply say that having read their case for contraception being considered morally wrong, I find their arguements to be invalid in many cases (that is, they equivocate on birth control and abortion in many cases, particularly when dealing with the historical data) and reaching in other cases (ie. using passages from wisdom books such as Proverbs to create a moral imperative for large families).

            Overall, though, I believe this issue is more centered around technology as these questions have not been dealt with very much historically. Our technology was simply not at a place where the issue of contraception (latex condoms and spermicide) was a reality that needed to be dealt with. So in the end I would place this issue alongside other issues that advancements in technology have brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness to be dealt with.

          • You have differences on a lot more than this issue, even when it comes to morality.

            "Additionally, the existence of a dispute over the law does not have a bearing on the law itself."

            Unfortunately, it shows that the law is so ambiguously written that Christians are largely in stark disagreement as to what it says. If understanding these laws is going to come down to who can formulate the strongest argument, then what if it's not clear which argument is stronger? What if the arguments are actually equally relevant/strong? I mean, even if there is a single correct answer, people might not formulate the strongest argument for that case (due to imperfection). Even worse, perhaps something very relevant could be missed, actually tipping the scale in favor of the incorrect understanding. In which case, what are they really presenting? They're presenting an incorrect understanding of God's word, as God's word, based upon an imperfect process of reasoning and argumentation.

            And condoms have been around for a few centuries, not just for disease prevention, but also as contraception.

          • I would definitely be interested in seeing a comprehensive case for your position, though. What would be even more interesting, however, would be to see how Christians currently adhering to the opposing view would react, on a whole.

  5. "Likewise, calling someone a “fagot” is offensive, not because it causes people caught up in a homosexual lifestyle any emotional damage. But because what it describes, a homosexual lifestyle, is morally wrong".
    You're an idiot, and a bigot; unfortunately being an idiot is morally neutral.

Leave a Reply