I’ve been rolling this around in my brain for a while, but it’s essay-writing season and so I’ve either been too busy or too lazy to actually write about it without some prompting. Luckily, the skeptic community has provided me with just the prompt I needed to drag myself away from my heterogeneous combination of innovation studies papers and Minecraft to pontificate on the ethics of offense.
The story in question has already been termed gelatogate, and there is a reasonably neutral summary of it here. Basically, a bunch of skeptics attending the Skepticon IV conference in Springfield, Missouri, found this sign in the window of a local Gelato shop:
On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss this as the work of some Christian supremacist bigot with more temper than business sense, until you read the shop owner’s apology, which he posted on Reddit last night:
“Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”). What I saw instead was a man conducting a mock sermon, reading the bible and cursing it. Instead of saying “Amen”, the phrase was “god damn”. Being a Christian, and expecting flying saucers, I was not only totally surprised but totally offended. I took it very personally and quickly decided in the heat of the moment that I had to take matters into my own hands and let people know how I felt at that moment in time.
So, I went quickly back to my business, grabbed the first piece of paper I could find, wrote the note and taped it in my front window. This was an impulsive response, which I fully acknowledge was completely wrong and unacceptable.”
This seems pretty sincere, and so despite not having been there, I am inclined to forgive the shop owner on that basis for ten minutes’ indiscretion. Jen McCreight agrees, as does Hemant Mehta, and many people quoted in the aforementioned news story. But not everybody is being so charitable. Adam Lee over at Big Think had this to say about the apology:
“That response – the instinctive desire to punish people for expressing a viewpoint you dislike, even when they’re doing it on their own time and in their own place – is what I can’t abide…Christians in America speak as if their beliefs deserve a special protection from criticism, that they should be exempt from the kind of criticism and, yes, mockery that they don’t bat an eye at when it’s directed at other ideas”
Typically for a political atheist, Lee is brazenly asserting his right to offend. Lee’s objection is a contribution to a debate much older than gelatogate over whether it is acceptable to engage in intentionally offensive conduct. There are reasonable arguments for Lee’s position. Significant social progress has been thanks to aggressive campaigning: it is unlikely that the civil rights or gay rights movements would have succeeded without offending the sensibilities of some. More recent feminist or economic justice campaigns have also likely caused some offense along with their positive effects. Offensive beliefs can be quite deeply rooted, and therefore quite offensive to remove. It therefore seems unlikely that any marginalized group would ever make any headway if they had to avoid ever causing offense. On the surface, therefore, offense seems justified.
There is, however, a convincing counterargument. Offense is frequently cast as a significant moral harm that can cause considerable distress to its victims. This is true. The Gelatogate example shows that human emotions can be powerful things: The gelato store owner’s actions show that what he saw at skepticon was considerably emotionally damaging. While certainly not as bad as, say, pepper-spraying peaceful protesters, offending somebody is still a pretty reliable way to make somebody unhappy and is therefore ethically objectionable.
Both of these arguments are convincing, but I think that to see the issue in such polarized terms is to fall victim to a false dilemma. Nobody talks this way about other harmful but potentially useful actions. It’s possible to condemn physical violence, for example, while still admitting its use for self-defense, defense of others, or (maybe) defense of property. Hurt feelings should be approached the same way: the question is not whether offense is justified, but when offense is justified.
Luckily, we already have a seasoned ethical theory for a similar situation: just war theory. Admittedly, there is far, far more at stake when considering whether to go to war than there is when considering whether to tell somebody they’re beliefs are wrong, but the fundamentals of the decision are the same: one is weighing a the moral harm that will inevitably be caused by confrontation against the good that could possibly come from it. It can therefore serve as a reasonable guide. Based on that, here is my proposed theory. I’ve used the example of a hypothetical confrontation with a religiously inspired homophobe to guide the discussion.
In order for it to be morally acceptable to verbally offend somebody, the following conditions must be satisfied:
1. Just Cause: Any offense must be caused only for the right reason. While just war theory focuses on self-defense or the defense of others on this point, just offense theory must be aware of the hazards of escalation. It is, therefore, usually not a good idea to return an offense for an offense. Instead, social betterment should be understood as the primary (but perhaps not the only) just cause for offense. Offensive words may be justifiably spoken if their aim is to correct some belief that is somehow materially detrimental. It is, therefore, acceptable to call out homophobia even if a homophobe’s religious beliefs entail a very strong emotional attachment to Leviticus. It is not, however, acceptable to tell somebody that their God does not exist simply because you believe that you have a more coherent metaphysical worldview than them.
2. Right Intention: In addition to having a justified cause, it is necessary to pursue the argument with the goal of addressing that cause. In the example above, it would not be acceptable to offend the homophobe if you’re secretly doing it in order to feel morally and intellectually superior.
3. Last Resort: Verbal offense should be the last possible means available to change a person’s mind. In the case of the homophobe, one should first try changing their mind with minimum modification to their deeply held beliefs. In the case of the aforementioned homophobe, one should avoid offense until an attempt has been made to invalidate homophobia from within a biblical worldview. Most skeptics should actually be pretty well equipped to do this.
4. Probability of Success: If you’re arguing with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, it’s probably best to just walk away rather than challenge their core religious beliefs. You’re not going to win that battle. There’s no point in causing the moral harm of offense if there is no chance of thereby changing their mind.
5. Proportionality: The offense caused must not be so great as to negate any benefit brought about by changing minds. This will depend on the situation. It may, for example, be worth it to attempt to change the outlook of a young and politically active homophobe, as their ideas could have a large impact and their brain is probably still malleable enough to permit change without too much distress. If the same beliefs are held by an elderly relative, however, the personal offence necessary to change them may be more harmful than whatever small actions may be influenced by their belief.
6. No Arguments Mala in Se: No arguments that are evil in themselves. You don’t get to insult somebody’s dead relatives, even if it would somehow be helpful to the point you’re trying to make. Even justified offense must have limits.
That’s my best attempt for now. It’s a little bit half-baked, but I think that gelatogate should be seen as a catalyst for further thought on this. Of course, the performance that the shopkeeper saw was not in his shop, but within the space of the skeptics where he had taken the initiative to go and investigate. This argument may therefore be irrelevant to the discussion of the shopkeeper’s apology. The apology should, nevertheless, cause self-reflective skeptics to examine the moral value of offending people.
This can have a large benefit that extends beyond the skeptical movement. Despite the aforementioned difference in opinion over offense, skepticism and social justice activism actually have a lot to offer one another. More skepticism incorporated into social justice activism can provide new and effective lines of argument and policy formation while also helping to repair credibility damaged by the 9/11 truthers and similar hangers-on. Social justice activism, meanwhile, besides being a natural conclusion of skeptical and humanist principles, can also provide a body of activist experience that would be very useful in a number of atheist, skeptic, and humanist efforts. There is, therefore, a lot of potential benefit to the resolution of this one sticking point about offense.
I don’t intend to be the last word on this matter, but I think this is a discussion that needs to be started. Wouldn’t it be nice if an event ending in ‘gate’ actually resulted in something positive for the skeptical community?