give and take

on offense

Last fall, I sat on the kitchen floor in the apartment of a new friend until three or four in the morning. I pulled my legs up to my chest and hugged them there. I was warm with talk and food and an adjacent space heater; I successfully balanced a glass of whiskey on my knee, which was exciting, even though it fell off before I could take a picture. The five of us talked about Japanese theater and the news and the people we knew and liked or did not like, and when it got late, we wondered how it had gotten so late so quickly, though all of us were glad to have so much of the night together.

Then one friend asked: Could he walk anyone home? He was the only male in the room, and after he spoke there was a slippery pause, during which the gazes of the women slid over each other, a silent code. “That’s so misogynistic,” said one of us. She may have said “sexist” or “heteronormative”—we were college juniors, and we had collected more than a few five-dollar words from the pages of research journals and feminist Tumblrs. “You’re just assuming that she needs to be walked home because she’s a girl.” The male friend was surprised, defensive. “I thought I was doing something nice,” he said. “Sorry, forget it.”

He had not meant to give offense, but she took it—she forbid him from saying what he hadn’t known was off-limits. In language, as in our interactions with each other, offense is a thing to be given and taken, an exchange that occurs between two people standing on opposite sides of a social boundary. The verb “to offend” comes from offendere, Latin for “to strike against.” The term maintains the essence of its origin in modern English. Striking against something does not necessarily imply intent, although it can: You could strike a hammer against a nail to drive it into the wall, for example. On the other hand, you could strike your toe on the doorjamb in the middle of the night when you were simply trying to make your way to the bathroom. We can give offense on purpose—insulting someone’s mother, for example, or drawing a cartoon that depicts a black person as a monkey or a woman as a sandwich dispenser or the face of the Prophet Muhammad—or we can give offense by accident, out of ignorance. In other words, we can give offense because someone takes it.

When taking offense, the presence of the intent to give offense is ultimately irrelevant. You can pluck up offense from wherever you want, pick up offense and brandish it about as a weapon or a social marker regardless of whether or not the cause is just. You can use offense that you take to say, “Hey, look, I’m offended by expressions of [insert historically dominant or oppressive group here]’s privilege, which means that I’m sensitive to the historical oppression of [insert historically oppressed group here].” My friend took offense when a dude offered to escort her to her doorstep—she saw his offer as an expression of old, misguided attitudes about female self-reliance. But why wouldn’t she assume that he was trying to be kind, or that he genuinely wanted to make sure that she made it home safely, or that he himself wanted company walking home, especially in a part of College Hill where there had recently been more than a couple muggings and a few sightings of a naked man outside of students’ homes?

There’s a part of The Brothers Karamazov in which an old, wise man speaks to a younger man who has given himself to a life of drinking and gambling. “You know,” says the old man, “it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself… He knows that, yet he will be the first to take offense and he will revel in his resentment until he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness.” What is the pleasure that he’s talking about? What is pleasurable about taking offense, about being offended? The concept is uncomfortable because it asks us to question the motives of the victim—the motives of the person or group who is drawing the boundary between what is acceptable to say and what is not.

This is not to say that there aren’t situations in which taking offense is virtually unavoidable. Another friend was recently told by a male teacher that her mathematical abilities would always be less than those of her male peers because of her gender—an old-fashioned, sexist sentiment that understandably offended her. She took offense, but she decided that she wouldn’t say anything. “I’m just going to kick ass like I was going to do anyway,” she said. Perhaps it’s impossible to never take offense; perhaps taking offense is sometimes justified. But if offense-taking is a spectrum, then what lies between violent retribution and turning the other cheek? Once you take offense, you have it—the offense is yours, to do with as you please, to discard or take up or use as fuel.