“Who I am” and the Problem of Offense

I recently asked a class of American students whether a man should be allowed to strut up and down a busy high street, dressed in a Nazi uniform. I knew I was taking a slight risk—some of them might have thought I was making light of the evils of Nazism by posing the question in a neutral tone of voice, as if it wasn’t obvious that the sight of such a thing would be repellent. But this was a not a class of “snowflakes,” eager to take offense or pounce on the supposedly sinister assumptions underlying my question. As is usual, it was made up of mostly hard-working, polite, in some cases inquisitive millennials eager to consider new ideas. But the most vocal participants in this discussion thought that because Nazism was such a paradigm of evil, no one should be allowed to display allegiance to it in this way.

But I wanted to know exactly why someone conducting himself in this way should be prevented from doing so. This is clearly different from asking whether it is acceptable for him to do this: I don’t think it is, unless he is obviously (say) an actor on a film set. But the same reaction persisted—although free expression is very important, Nazism crosses a line. Walking around in public, dressed in a uniform that symbolizes evil, should not be tolerated. It is grossly offensive to decent sensibilities.

As a philosophy lecturer, I enjoy posing provocative questions, basking in the luxury of not having to answer them myself. If I had to answer this question, I would incline to say that, while it should not be a crime per se to dress up in Nazi regalia or other symbols of depravity, I would be disturbed by the sight of it, and would want the authorities to keep an eye on such a person, watching out for his next move. Perhaps he is going to join up with others and engage in intimidation or violence. In that case, there is good reason to curb his activities—a reason that would be accepted by the most “classically liberal” thinkers. After all, it was J. S. Mill himself who advocated the “Harm Principle,” which permits extensive freedom of expression, even of the vilest opinions, but draws the line at causing serious harm to others. His celebrated example of corn dealers illustrates the point: you should be allowed to publish a tract that says that corn dealers starve the poor, but should not be allowed to assemble a mob outside a corn dealer’s house, since that would stifle discussion and may lead to violence.

This, at least, is the classical response—one that is nominally accepted even by many people who turn out, in practice, to be lukewarm about free speech. It draws a familiar distinction between offense and harm: to be merely offended is not to be harmed and the law should step in only when actions or speech cause harm. Often found alongside this view, though not essential to it, is that words alone do not harm anyone, so anyone should be allowed to say anything they like. Most passionate defenders of free speech do not go this far—in their view, speech that threatens or incites serious harm should be forbidden. But, with these exceptions, free speech defenders have a strong tendency to say that there is a sharp distinction between words and deeds, and that, except for threats and incitements, words are harmless.

However, when it comes to tolerating the expression of views, whether in literal speech or not, there are two counter-moves made by those who are less enthusiastic about free speech than I am. One is, as already suggested, to accept Mill’s harm principle but stress that the expression of viewpoints is harmful far more often than some of Mill’s loyal followers admit. The other, less discussed, accepts the difference between offense and harm but makes the case for restricting offensive, as well as harmful, comments or behavior. Those of us who are worried by the wilder attempts to restrict speech need to take these responses seriously, to avoid falling into the same traps of dogmatic and simplistic reasoning of which we so readily accuse our opponents.

“Who I Am”

However, recent years have seen the emergence of new rhetoric. People who react with hurt feelings and anger at such speech increasingly say that it attacks not merely something they happen to be, but who they are. This assault, they say, goes beyond false and prejudiced generalizations about the qualities possessed by the members of the groups they belong to. Rather, it is a more fundamental attack, variously interpreted as an assault on their basic human dignity, on the “core of their being” or even on their right to exist.

If the speech in question really does these things, it might be harmful or offensive enough to justify restrictions on it. The man in Nazi regalia marching up and down the street exhibits offensive behavior, even if it doesn’t harm anyone, since the Nazis certainly did disregard the human dignity and, indeed, the right to exist of groups they considered sub-human. If anything is offensive, this is – and for that reason it helps focus our thoughts on why we might want certain self-expressions restricted, and whether the examples that most commonly arise in the debate about free expression fall into that category.

Offensiveness is a multi-faceted concept. To begin with, there is offense to the senses, such as foul smells and tastes, putrescent slime and rotting flesh. These things produce disgust, which appears to be an evolutionary adaptation that protects us from disease. The revulsion has little conceptual content. It is hard to say what it is about a foul smell that we find disgusting, apart from its disgustingness—we might not even believe that the foul-smelling thing poses a danger to health. Then there are more complex cases. Take pornography. Although society is increasingly tolerant of it, some people find its brazen display of genitalia and sexual performances offensive. When pressed to say why, they tend to change the subject, talking instead about how porn encourages misogyny and sexual crime, or causes male sexual dysfunction. These “dialectical displacement tactics,” to coin a phrase, lead to an abundance of inconclusive social scientific debates about the harm caused, or not caused, by porn. These do not address people’s visceral revulsion towards porn, because it is so difficult to articulate to those who do not share it. A further example is blasphemy. Although most people in the West do not recognize the concept, for many religious believers it is the ultimate offense—the mockery of God, or at least the desecration of what is holy. As with porn, it is implausible to describe the wrong mainly in terms of harm—God cannot be harmed, and I suspect people’s religious conviction is as likely to be strengthened as weakened by the encounter with it.

All this suggests to me that offensiveness, as opposed to harm, needs more analysis in the free speech debate. The offensiveness of Nazi displays consists in the unpleasant reminder of what the Nazis stood for, and especially—for those whom the Nazis hated—in being made to imagine themselves the way the Nazis viewed them. But these are hazy thoughts and the truth may be subtler.

To address the question of whether offensiveness should be tolerated, we should look at more everyday instances of what people find offensive and notice the trend for seeing things in a deeply personal way. In the case of Nazism, this makes sense—it is quite coherent for Jews, Slavs and homosexuals to take Nazi attitudes personally. But many cases discussed today are far less clear cut. For example, should you be allowed to stand on a busy street with placards bearing biblical passages condemning homosexuality? Or to mock, publicly, the fundamental beliefs of a major world religion? Or to say that transgender women are not women? There are mixed reactions. Some people want to stop the activities of the street fundamentalist with his verses from Leviticus, thinking him harmful or at least profoundly offensive to gay people. There are also those, including some non-Muslims, who perceive mockery or even straightforward criticism of Islam as “Islamophobic.” And some of the most bitterly fought battles, at present, are about the transgender question.

The transgender question is especially interesting. There is currently a furious conflict between transgender activists and a group known (derogatorily) as TERFs (“Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists”).

The politics—indeed the metaphysics—of this controversy are intriguing. There are well-meaning individuals who warmly applaud both feminist activism on behalf of women and trans activists’ work on behalf of trans people, and are genuinely surprised to learn that there is such intense hostility between them.

The serious philosophical issue is about what it is to be male or female. This is a question on which there is intelligent disagreement and there are thoughtful things said in favor of different views (see here and here) despite the polemics that fly around. But the most acrimonious political clash is between feminists who perceive elements within the transgender movement as dangerous to women, and transgender activists who regard all questioning of their gender self-identification as a kind of existential threat. Their rhetoric is vague and angry, but the thrust of it is: “You don’t think we even have a right to exist!”

There is clearly a perception of an attack here. But what is the exact nature of the attack? More precisely, what would make the attack successful? If a trans woman rightly believes that she is a woman, can someone who denies this turn her back into a man (if she ever was a man)? Similar questions can be asked about the other cases. Can the street proselytizer bring down the wrath of God on gay people? If Islam is true, does mockery make it false or stop Muslims from worshiping?

Once we see the obvious answers to these questions, it becomes clear that the worry is about something else. It could be that such words are interpreted as an incitement to harm. But if they are, Mill’s harm principle will justify restricting the speech. More likely, however, is that the offended individuals cannot endure people questioning something that they see as central to the very meaning of their lives. In that case, the well-worn advice—to ignore it—is usually right. No harm is done by this alone, and none is likely. Of course, the sense of being under attack is visceral and comes prior to reasoning, and the instinctive defense is to take away the means of attack. If the means of attack is words, there is an impulse to prevent the words from being uttered. But that doesn’t mean the impulse is a reasonable one.

Hence, we should look carefully at the appeal to “who I am” as a reason to ban offensive speech. To the uninitiated, it seems more sensible to say that being gay or transgender (and I am using the term here without prejudice as to whether the gender self-identifications are justifiable) is an attribute some people possess, among many others, and in no way defines their “core identity.” For example, one and the same woman might be a lesbian, a teacher, a conservative, and a mother. She might regard some of these things as more important to her than others, but not identify any of them as who she essentially is.

It is telling, in fact, that those who genuinely hate gay and transgender people, etc. and wish them real harm are likely to agree that being gay etc. is part of the core identity of the people they hate. To return to the Nazis: although they stirred up hatred of Jews by telling malicious lies about what Jewish people were like, their core thinking was essentialist: they thought that there was a Jewish essence, and they hated it. They were, so to speak, “pure” racists, unmovable by examples of Jews who did not have the attributes they believed were typical of Jews. It would have been bad enough if they had thought that there was a set of bad attributes that happened to be possessed by all and only Jews. But they went further—they thought that Jewishness itself was something malign, and that it defined every Jewish person. They held to a version of “identity politics,” taken to murderous extremes.

“Identity politics” is a somewhat vague term and often best avoided, but it goes with the idea that the most important thing about individuals is the groups they belong to, with various groups defined as oppressors or oppressed. This gives a license to the rhetoric of identity—of “who I am”—as a way of claiming special protection from offense. It can also spawn a sentimental and morbid self-absorption: this is all about me and my identity, so not seeing things the way I do is a denial of my human dignity and a fundamental breach of my rights.

Traditional radical feminists who have tried to argue with (some) trans-activists have come up against this wall and the result has often been ugly. There are activists who think it should not even be up for discussion whether trans women really are women, or whether they should be accepted as women. This borders on the surreal. Whatever the truth about these things—and it is complex and multi-faceted—this is the shutting down of a necessary and important conversation. And while some feminists face appalling hostility as a result, they can themselves be the perpetrators of hostility when it comes to other incendiary topics, such as the social origin of gender roles and the definition of women as oppressed. Here, too, nuanced and tolerant conversation is often lacking. But without respectful dialogue, people divide into partisan tribes. To see this, we need only witness what has happened to Jordan Peterson, who is now revered as an almost infallible seer by his tribal followers, and excoriated as a beyond-the-pale misogynist by his tribal opponents.


Can we move beyond this sorry state of affairs? The notion of vulnerability is central to it, but this has two very different faces—an aggressive public one and an often confused and uncertain private one.

The aggressive face of vulnerability thrives on the “who I am” rhetoric and tolerates no dissent. Vulnerability becomes a badge that immunizes its wearers from challenge and can even be faked for that very purpose. Of course, a sense of vulnerability may be entirely sincere and well-founded. But it can propel people to put on a public face of invincibility and certainty. After all, if the enemy is already attacking you, the last thing you do is show ambivalence or weakness.

However, the private face may be very different. It is no accident that much “identity politics” is about sexuality and religion, since these are central to many people’s sense of meaning and purpose. It is natural, and not at all discreditable, to feel insecure about them. Some teenagers think they may be gay or even “in the wrong kind of body” but are not sure. Many people raised in a minority religion privately wonder whether the doctrines they have been taught are true, even if they still feel a strong allegiance to their culture. They may be troubled and wish to explore their uncertainties and insecurities. I have little doubt that most people are insecure about something, and while we initially welcome the help of others with similar feelings, the last thing we want is to be dragooned into group orthodoxies that require rigid beliefs about “who we are.” At its worst, this is like seeking the help of gangsters because they are the only protection against worse gangsters.

The stifling of opinions deemed offensive fails to do justice to the uncertainty and ambivalence often experienced by people who see themselves as vulnerable. What is thought offensive may, after all, express some truth whose recognition may conceivably be helpful. In any case, truth that hits a raw nerve is often more offensive than outright falsehood. Defensiveness and anger are understandable responses to hostility, especially when critics are aggressively mocking—as was Milo Yiannopoulos, who is now returning to the obscurity from which he should never have emerged. You cannot have a discussion with people like that, because they pounce on weakness and only want to win. But when your own side does the same, truthfulness and compassion are stifled, only to be replaced by what Sigmund Freud diagnosed as “the narcissism of small differences.”



  1. I have never seen anyone put this so well. This idea that words can threaten “who I am” seems so alien to me but I think it has to do with a deep rootlessness. For people in the modern world it can be hard to forge a coherent identity. Most people are not philosophically oriented enough to fully examine life, so they grab onto some sort of identity. We see this in people’s declarations of who they are “I am a queer, non-binary, progressive lesbian artist” or something. But these identities are not necessarily solid or very real, more like clothing. I have seen pictures of many radical feminist bloggers who freshman year of college were normal kids but by junior year were all intersectional radical blah blah with blue hair and piercings. How deep can such a new identity be? So someone that puts out words that pose a challenge to such an identity or even question it are cause for freaking out. Otherwise how can you explain anyone caring about the preacher on the corner with his quotations about homosexuality? These people don’t even go to church but it is offensive that someone doesn’t praise them for their brave identity, their wonderfulness. We see this in many areas where people are not asking to be left alone but rather that their gayness or transness be honored and celebrated by everyone (no one offers to honor me for my conservatism or hard work…but I don’t care). Anyone not celebrating you is somehow a threat to your identity. Pretty fragile identity.


  2. I wish I understood better the prescription for how vulnerability can provide a path forward when it sums up the problem itself, a personal feeling of offense, and when its public expression seems alien to anyone’s experience of it, constituted by righteous outrage of dubious authenticity. Does vulnerability get us past disgust? I wonder if that’s the right metaphor. I rather think openness is inoculation to offendedness and offensiveness. You may have a disgust reaction to a new food or a new idea, give it the benefit of the doubt and you might develop a taste or an understanding. Instead of reacting defensively you this too can be a part of you.



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