The Offensiveness Pandemic

It is impossible these days to be a university professor and not be accused of offending someone. Offensiveness is now regarded as a synonym for disagreement. I recall presenting to my class a distinction that psychologist Abraham Maslow made concerning two types of cognition. “Deficiency cognition” (D-cognition) occurs when an object is experienced partially or incompletely. “Being cognition” (B-cognition) occurs when an object tends to be seen as a whole, unrelated to anything else. Professor Maslow, so I thought, had made a rather innocent distinction.

At the end of class, however, a student stormed up to my desk. She was indignant and hot under the collar. “I am offended,” she said in a raised voice. Apparently, she saw herself as a D-cognition person and did not want anyone to remind her that there was something better. Of course, neither I nor Maslow was stating anything that was offensive. But the idea in the mind of my complaining student that she might be inferior in some way rattled her.

I was a member of the steering committee at that same Catholic university and suggested that we begin future college council meetings with a prayer. The atheist member of the committee strongly protested, stating that opening a meeting with a prayer would be hypocritical, provocative, and offensive. When tolerance is low, being offended becomes inevitable.

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On another occasion, trying to be ultra-careful not to offend anyone, I limited the characters in my presentation to one pagan, one Christian, one woman, and one motion picture. I did not want to show any favorites. New Haven, Connecticut, however, is not a good place to avoid offending people. Careful as I was, a Yale student came up to me after my talk and told me that she was offended by my use of a “token woman.” She did not complain about my use of a token pagan (Socrates) or any of my other “tokens.” Being offended is a fine art, and it is more easily spotted by the offended than the offender.

I was invited to speak at Christmastime to a nondenominational Christian group. When I suggested that I might speak about saints that are associated with the Christmas Season, I was told that such allusions would be offensive to my audience members. I settled on something less offensive. I am not sure that I succeeded in not offending anyone. My listeners may have been silently offended.

I was getting the impression that a significant number of people in my various audiences were hoping to be offended and would use any reason to enjoy that experience. I should not want to disappoint them. Perhaps I could get ahead of the game by beginning my presentations by playing into their hands: “I would like to apologize to anyone whom I may not be offending. Please be patient. I’ll get to whoever you are as soon as I can.” I was led to suppose that if a person is in continuous search of being offended, he will surely find what he is looking for even if it is not there. Being offended was clearly pandemic.

Simply stating that some people are opposed to abortion can be deemed offensive. In such cases, dialogue is not possible. Declaring that one is offended puts an immediate end to any possible discussion. One must apologize to the wounded party and any others who might also be offended.

It was with great delight that I came across a remark made by the esteemed editor Robert Fulford: “University education has always been offensive and always will be. Being offended is part of learning how to think.” The obligation of the professor is not to reinforce student prejudices. In order to learn, one must trade erroneous ideas for correct ones. This process exemplifies the passage from darkness to light. It may be humbling to recognize the errors of one’s ways, but it is not offensive.

Claiming to be offended by something that is not inherently offensive can be used as a defense against admitting that one is wrong. Here, pride comes into play. “How dare you expose my ignorance!” Like the Tareyton smoker in the vintage commercial, one would prefer to fight than switch. Capitulating to the delicate sensitivities of the easily offended, of course, marks the end of education. Academia is then transformed into an institution for the very, very touchy.

A teacher who has any respect for his noble profession should keep in mind that if he finds himself apologizing for being offensive when he is not being offensive, then he is easily manipulated. When students sense this weakness in a teacher, they are able to shut down the learning process. In some cases, they have staged protests, putting pressure on the administration to get the offending teacher either suspended or fired.

The Act of Contrition, one of the basic penitential prayers of the Catholic Church, begins with the words, “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee.” We have a solemn obligation not to offend God. And we offend God by sinning. It is hard to take seriously those politically correct individuals who oppose all forms of offensiveness when they do not take into consideration how they may be offending God.  

We observe that in the movies, on the street, and on college campuses, offensive language is at a high point. A friend of mine spoke for many when he told me that the foul language he hears from his high school students is more excessive and violent than what he heard while in the Army.

Offensive language is intended to offend. It is a curious world in which we live where opposition to being offended and the intention to be offensive are both at an all-time high. Honesty and sincerity do not characterize the modern world. Let us distinguish what is truly offensive from what is not and avoid the former and not cave in when accused of the latter.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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