Concerning Offense

How can language offend and who is at fault for the offense?


In the United States, unlike here (the Netherlands), a peculiar thing is happening. Youth on college campuses advocate for so called “safe spaces”. A safe space, according to the Advocates for Youth website, is: “A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others”. In theory, this is would be a good idea – a space where everyone can just be him or herself. In practice however, this is not the case.

Last year Halloween, on Yale University, a controversy arose due to these save spaces. TIME Magazine writes: “It all started with a now-infamous Halloween email sent by Erika Christakis, a psychology lecturer and wife of Nicholas Christakis, the master of one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges. In the email, she pushed back against an idea being floated on campus that students should self-censor their Halloween costumes against anything controversial or possibly offensive. Her email ignited the school, spawning confrontations between students and teachers and campus-wide protests“. This is a situation that occurs often: youth censoring  themselves to the extremes, in order to not offend any single person. It goes further than this – some students don’t want World War II being taught at their school, because it might offend the Jewish students. This, in my opinion, is in direct contrast with the freedom of speech (and even common sense) – I want to get to the bottom of this. Are these youth justified in not wanting to offend anyone? Or should people simply be less offended? In this article, I will look at why language offends people – and when someone is offended, I will examine who is at fault; the speaker or the offended.

A friend of mine recently posted the following abstract from a comic book from DC, Wonder Woman. This is that abstract:


Is the man at fault here for offending Wonder Woman, although he did not intend to? Or is Wonder Woman at fault for taking offense where none was intended? At the end of the article I will discuss this abstract again.

Let me first define the terms I am using: “offended” and “language”. What is being offended? Google gives the definition: “resentful or annoyed, typically as a result of a perceived insult“. This will be the definition I will be using when talking about offendedness.

Secondly, what is language?

Language is, simply put, the tool we use to communicate our thoughts to one another. We think of something, we try the best we can to translate this into words, and another person interprets our words – in order to (hopefully) form the same thoughts we had, in their own mind. Knowing this, we can make a distinction between two things: Speaker Meaning and Audience Interpretation. Speaker Meaning is that which the speaker means or implies when uttering words. This is done with the words he or she uses, together with things such as body language, tone of voice and intonation. Secondly we have Audience Interpretation, which is the what the audience, or the listener, understands from the Speaker Meaning. When the Speaker Meaning is different from the Audience Interpretation, a misunderstanding arises. From this misunderstanding a confusion can arise, and from that confusion a conflict can come forth.

Conversational Implicature

The problem is then, how does the audience know what the speaker means? H.P. Grice came up with a theory for this, called Conversational Implicature. This theory helps to avoid misunderstandings between the speaker and the audience. In it, Grice states for ‘Maxims’ (rules) for conversation. We all, though we do not know it most of the time, keep to these Maxims (rules). They are the unspoken rules of spoken conversation.

The first rule is the Maxim of Quantity. It states that when in conversation, one should give just the right amount of information – not too much and not too little. An example to illustrate the Maxim is this:
You were sick yesterday and did not go to work. Today you feel better again and you go to work. Your boss asks why you were not at work yesterday and you answer with “I was at home”. This would be too little information. If you answer with “I was throwing up all over the kitchen table and over my dog”, that would be too much information. The correct amount of information would be to say “I was feeling sick”.

The second rule is the Maxim of Quality. It is comprised of the following:
Do not tell lies in conversations
– Do not make claims without sufficient evidence
Without these, Grice says, any conversation would be irrelevant – because we would not know if someone was telling the truth or being sincere.

The third rule is the Maxim of Relation. It means that you should only talk about relevant things. If I were to write a whole paragraph in this article about the existence of a green mountain lion, it would not be of any use to you, the reader. This rule is the same in a conversation.

The fourth rule is the Maxim of Manner. It is comprised of the following:
– Do not use obscure phrases. The use of language is to communicate with each other, and obscure phrases hinder clear communication.
– Be brief. Do not write a book about something that could be said in one sentence.
– Be orderly. Do not jump from subject to subject, this hinders a normal and good conversation.
– Avoid ambiguity. Do not use so called ’10 dollar words’. A ten dollar word is essentially a long word that is used in the place of a much more common word or a shorter word that is more well-known.

If we keep to these Maxims, communication would be as clear as a bright blue sky. However, we often violate these Maxims – because violating them produces certain effects. Things such as sarcasm and other types of comedy can be produced when violating the Maxims.

Now we know how the audience knows what the Speaker Meaning is. It also relies on one more thing, which is context. As Groucho Marx famously said:

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

This statement makes clever use of the little context we have of the situation Marx describes, and then turns the context we think we know on its head by saying that the elephant was in his pajama’s. This is an example of what happens when one violates a Maxim. In technical terms, violating a Maxim is called ‘Flouting a Maxim’, which I will be using from now on.

Fighting Words

Then there are ‘fighting words’, which is a category of language and words. Fighting words are words that are meant to incite violence or hatred. It will come as no surprise that one of the sub-categories of Fighting Words is ‘Hate Speech’.  Hate Speech has a specific way of harassing people, and it does this with a so called ‘Thick Concept’.

A Thick Concept is a word that is not only descriptive, but also has a value attached to it. In Philosophical jargon this would be called descriptive content and ‘evaluative content’. Take for example the word ‘slut‘. The descriptive content of the word slut is ‘a woman that has sex with a lot of people’. However, this is not the only thing we think of when we hear the word slut. It has evaluative content, namely that it is not good for that woman to have sex with so many people, the evaluative content is also tainted with a certain disdain with the word slut. Hate Speech makes use of Thick Concepts to harm people purposefully.

When does an offense arise?

Now we know that language and meaning is quite complex. But in what situations can offense arise?

The first situation is when Hate Speech is used. This is an obvious one, I hope. When someone is called a ‘slut’, that person can of course feel offended. I call this the ‘Intentional Offense’.

The second situation in which an offense can arise is when the Speaker Flouts a Maxim, while not meaning to offend, yet the Audience does not recognize this and thinks they are still in keeping with the unspoken rules of conversation. When someone uses sarcasm for example, and the Audience does not recognize the sarcasm, offense can be taken. I call this a ‘Flouting misunderstanding’.

The third situation is when the Speaker Meaning is perfectly following all the Maxims, and the speaker means no offense, yet still the Speaker Meaning differs from the Audience Interpretation. We all know situations like this, when someone asks you a normal question but you just think they mean something else. This I call the ‘Non-flouting misunderstanding’. These are the three categories and situations when offense can arise. Within each of these three categories a lot of different situations can arise, but all within these three categories.

Who is at fault for the offense?

Let me first make something clear: offense is always taken. We can always choose, however difficult, not to let that person insulting you harm you in any way. Offense can in that sense be viewed as a matter of self control, or the lack thereof. When you are offended, it is your choice. You could have, with a little more self control, chosen not to be offended.

This is however not to say that when one is offended, and being offended is a choice, that the offended is always at fault for being offended. While being offended is a choice, having to choose to be either offended or not offended is not a choice.

Intentional Offense

This brings me to the first category in which offense can arise: Intentional Offense.
In this situation, when the Speaker intends to make the Audience choose between being either offended or not offended, the Audience is not at fault for being offended. The Speaker is always at fault when offense is intentional.

This would compare with an axe murderer. Say the axe murderer chops of a woman’s arm with his axe. We can not blame the woman for feeling pain in this situation – we blame the axe murderer. It would be ridiculous not to. There are people, like highly trained monks, who can cancel out the pain of the axe. When confronted with the choice of not feeling pain or feeling pain, they can choose. This still does not mean that if they do feel pain, it is their own fault – because they themselves were put in the situation to choose. 

Flouting Misunderstanding

When a Flouting Misunderstanding arises, the Speaker does intend to make the Audience choose between being offended or not offended. However, unbeknownst to the Speaker, he created a situation where the Audience does have to choose – because he Flouted a Maxim. The speaker is thus at fault.

However, it is not only the Speaker who is at fault when a Flouting Misunderstanding arises. The Speaker did not intend harm, and was Flouting a Maxim for maybe comedic or some other desired effects. However, the Audience did not recognize this. Because the Audience did not understand something they should have understood, the Audience is also partly at fault. With a Flouting Misunderstanding, both Speaker and Audience are therefor at fault for the offense.

Non-flouting Misunderstanding

When a Non-flouting Misunderstanding arises, the Speaker Meaning contained no intentional harm (otherwise it would be an Intentional Offense). He also did not Flout a Maxim – he kept to the rules. Despite of this, the Audience Interpretation still contains an offense. The Speaker here is not at fault – that would be like walking up against a wall, and afterwards blaming the wall. No, the Audience is the only one at fault here, because the Audience took offense where none should be taken. They created the choice of being either offended or not offended for themselves, when that was not at all necessary  When you walk up against a wall while taking a stroll, the only one to blame is yourself.

Back to the Comic

This is the Comic again, which a friend of mine recently shared online. being-offended

Keeping with the three categories in which offense can arise, this would example would fall into the last category, Non-flouting Misunderstanding. The man did not mean to offend Wonder Woman, and he did not Flout a Maxim. Wonder Woman took offense where none was in need of being taken – she put herself in front of the choice of being offended or not offended, and she chose offended. She could instead of taking offense at this, just have taken it for the compliment that it was. Her offendedness is entirely her own doing.


2 thoughts on “Concerning Offense

  1. Great analysis! I’m not entirely in agreement with your end conclusion about the cartoon snippet though. The speaker (in my opinion) has flouted the Maxim of Relation: Suggesting that the combination of Wonder woman’s gender and strength is unusual is not actually relevant to the situation, and has put her in a situation where she has to choose to be offended about this or not. Therefore this is a Flouting Misunderstanding, and both parties are at fault here.


    1. Hi Niels! I personally don’t think the speaker has flouted the Maxim of Relation – seeing that strength would be relative. Men are, in some ways, a lot stronger than women mostly. As said on Facebook, this is why men and women don’t compete with each other during the Olympics.


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