Please don’t be offended!
A Socratic dialogue
[Inside PASCAL’s home. SOCRATES is watching television, while PASCAL is kneeling in the corner, praying.]
SOCRATES: They just bleeped a word on my favorite show!
PASCAL: Well, there are certain words you can’t say on TV.
SOCRATES: Like “fuck”, apparently.
PASCAL: Dear Lord!
SOCRATES: What, you don’t like hearing that word?
PASCAL: Heavens, no!
SOCRATES: And I bet you think that we shouldn’t be able to say “fuck” on television?
PASCAL: Certainly not!
SOCRATES: But why not? The word simply means “sex” or “intercourse” and you can say those words on the air.
PASCAL: The word f—, uh, the word you mentioned, is obscene. It is vulgar.
SOCRATES: What exactly does that mean? Would the word, if heard, harm the listeners in some way?
PASCAL: Of course. People’s sensibilities would be harmed. Decent people would hate to hear such rubbish.
SOCRATES: But why? Does the sound of a voiceless labiodental fricative preceding a mid-back, unrounded vowel and followed then by a voiceless velar stop somehow produce a dangerous resonance pattern that could damage the eardrums of unsuspecting people?
PASCAL: You mock me.
SOCRATES: Not at all. I am simply at a loss to understand how any word, any single morpheme, could possibly harm anyone, apart from the word being delivered at a dangerous volume level.
PASCAL: You misunderstand. It is not physical harm that such language can cause, but mental harm. Distress, if you will.
SOCRATES: But how does such distress come about? Do the concepts cause distress?
PASCAL: Why, yes.
SOCRATES: So the word “sex” offends you.
SOCRATES: Let me rephrase. Would the word “sex” offend an ordinary person, a person that…perhaps…had not written the Pensées?
PASCAL: I would think not. No.
SOCRATES: So the content of a word like “fuck” is not what offends, after all.
PASCAL: OK then, it is not the content of the word that offends, but the word itself. The word is offensive.
SOCRATES: For what reason? Is there some intrinsic property of the word that offends you…perhaps the way the word rolls off one’s tongue? Or perhaps you hate the word because it scores 13 points in a game of Scrabble, and 13 is an unlucky number?
PASCAL: The word is offensive. Everyone knows that.
SOCRATES: But do you mean that literally? Everyone? Would a person who speaks no English be offended?
PASCAL: Of course not.
SOCRATES: But why not?
PASCAL: They wouldn’t know what the word means.
SOCRATES: But we agreed that being offended doesn’t come from the meaning of the word.
PASCAL: Oh, uh…well, they don’t know it’s a vulgar word. They haven’t been raised in an English-speaking culture, so they don’t know that the word isn’t proper.
SOCRATES: So being offended by “fuck” must be learned.
PASCAL: Of course. One must learn correct etiquette, the right manners. Why should language be different?
SOCRATES: So you would agree, would you not, that being offended by a word like “fuck” is a completely arbitrary, learned behavior?
PASCAL: I would not say arbitrary. After all, that particular word denigrates what is actually a solemn bond between man and wife. That word cheapens the act itself. That can’t be tolerated.
SOCRATES: It can’t be tolerated? How come? What would happen if you did show tolerance?
PASCAL: The foundations of society rest on certain conventions, certain morals. If we allow vulgarities, the whole framework is weakened significantly.
SOCRATES: And then what would happen?
PASCAL: Society would become unraveled; in its place would be—
SOCRATES: A better society?
SOCRATES: Can you really believe that allowing certain words to become less vulgar would mean that all society would crumble?
PASCAL: But there is nothing we can do. There are always words that will be vulgar; you cannot make them less so.
SOCRATES: Why not? We’ve already shown that a word like “fuck” offends only because society arbitrarily says so. Well, we are society, all of us, are we not? What if we simply said that “fuck” is hereby no longer a “dirty” word. It means, simply, “sexual intercourse”—if taken as a verb—or “I am very displeased” if taken as an interjection. How could such an action harm society? Wouldn’t it help, in the sense that no one will ever again feel mental distress when that particular word is pronounced within earshot?
PASCAL: Such a thing could never happen. Proper people will always be aghast at the mentioning of obscenities.
SOCRATES: Ah, but there’s the rub: how will they know which words are obscenities and which are not? What if society refuses to sort this out for them?
PASCAL: You propose an end to all that’s decent!
SOCRATES: Not at all, my bridge-dangling friend. I propose to remove an arbitrary system of “word regulation” from our society, because doing so will make our society that much better. No one will ever be offended by “dirty” words again, because there will be no dirty words! We would have a society in which censorship would be nonexistent, and in which freedom of expression would reach new, unexplored levels.
PASCAL: You are persuasive, but servants of the Devil often are. But now I think I see what you are doing. In grand Orwellian fashion, you propose to make odious words acceptable by simply indoctrinating people. Brainwashing them.
SOCRATES: No, that’s your jurisdiction. Look at it this way: I am not trying to make murder more acceptable, simply by calling “murder” by another name such as “wexelflugen”. You cannot change concepts by switching their labels around. “A rose by any other name…” But you can change the connotations a given word has, if you want, because words are just placeholders for concepts around us. Why not take all the so-called vulgarities and throw them out the window? Who says that our language has to have any vulgarities at all? Why don’t we all just agree that no word will ever again bother us, ever offend us? Don’t people have enough control of their own minds to make such a decision…a decision that would benefit everyone?
PASCAL: Well, be that as it may, some concepts would remain offensive. There’s nothing you can do about that.
SOCRATES: There isn’t? Give me an example of something—not a word—that offends you.
PASCAL: OK. Violence offends me. Surely you will not try to tell me that we should all just agree that violence is acceptable, and that we should all live with violence happily.
SOCRATES: You are right, I will not. I abhor violence; the very idea of murder sickens me.
PASCAL: A ha! Then you agree with me.
SOCRATES: Well, yes and no. “Violence” does not offend me, but violence does.
PASCAL: Um. I’m confused. You just said—
SOCRATES: I said that I abhor violence. But “violence” doesn’t bother me.
PASCAL: What is this, semantic trickery?
SOCRATES: I do not like violence; I dislike seeing graphic pictures of murder victims; I become nauseated at the thought of war; the sight of blood often makes me sick.
PASCAL: Then violence offends your soul.
SOCRATES: I suppose. But talk of violence doesn’t bother me at all.
PASCAL: What do you mean?
SOCRATES: I experience certain physiological symptoms when exposed to violence, but if someone says “murder” or “rioting” or “rape” or “you may eat the flesh of kings” then I am not offended. And what I mean by that is this: I do not like to see or hear violence as it is committed, nor do I enjoy thinking about violent acts, and I certainly am very angry that certain forms of violence still exist in this world. However, the concept of violence, the abstraction, can’t “offend” me any more than the concept of volcanoes or tsunamis or great white sharks. Maybe I don’t want to be near them, but how can they “offend” me? And if you talk about them, why should that bother me?
PASCAL: Let me understand. The word “murder” is not offensive. And a discussion of murder is not offensive. But if someone commits murder—
SOCRATES: Then yes, that would bother me. Look: concepts like murder are too important as issues for people to ignore just because they’re afraid their sensibilities might be punctured. And this applies to other concepts I dislike as well: bigotry, deception, subjugation—these words do not offend me, because I do not let them. But the acts themselves very well might piss me off.
PASCAL: But if a word is used in a hateful way, such as a racial epithet…
SOCRATES: Again, don’t blame the word. What I find offensive in such a case is the insensitivity (or downright malice) of the speaker, their intent to harm. So saying “fuck you!” might be offensive not because that particular phrase was uttered, but because of the intent of the speaker.
PASCAL: But then it would be too hard to sort out what was offensive and what was not! If you always had to check the context—
SOCRATES: Sorry, but you have to do that anyway. “Pain” means one thing to us, and quite another thing to the French.
PASCAL: I am at a loss for words.
SOCRATES: Here is my manifesto. Many people, when encountering an idea they find distasteful, turn up their noses and say they are offended. I, however, cannot be offended by ideas—that is, by abstract words devoid of context. Nothing in the abstract can offend me at all, and I am very proud of this fact. Sure, there are things I don’t like to see (like rotting corpses) or hear (like fingernails on a blackboard) or smell (like a diaper full of shrimp) but these things don’t offend me. Why should I hold a grudge against such phenomena? I don’t like them, but that’s not a problem: I can shut my eyes or cover my ears or pinch my nose shut. I choose not to participate in these sensory experiences—choose—and for quite understandable reasons. My aversion to such things is instinctual, biological, untainted by arbitrary sociological constraints. Now, in certain cases, I cannot choose to avoid something, in which case I am offended by the selfishness of the perpetrator. If you smoke in an elevator with me, I will be offended because I have no choice but to breathe your noxious detritus. If you commit murder or cheat on your taxes or beat your wife, I will be offended because you have committed a crime, and betrayed an implied covenant between you and the rest of society. But I emphasize again that the words “murder” or “cheating” or “beating” can’t offend me, as they’re just words. And so too, the word “fuck” cannot have any effect on me at all.
PASCAL: Well then.
SOCRATES: Being offended is a learned skill. There is no evolutionary gain to having people grimace when they hear a collection of phonemes such as “clusterfuck”. People are offended by such a word because they choose to be offended, but do not even realize that they have a choice. The content of the word is irrelevant…else “group sex” would offend just as much. But it does not.
PASCAL: Speak for yourself.
SOCRATES: You don’t look convinced.
PASCAL: Well, your discourse has offended me.
PASCAL: And I would wager that some part of you is offended, as well. You just can’t admit it.
SOCRATES: You and your wagers.
PASCAL: Anyway, I’ve made some tea out of Queen Anne’s Lace. Would you like some?
SOCRATES: Not really. There’s something about that plant that offends me—
PASCAL: No matter. I have to catch the carriage to Neuilly anyway.
SOCRATES: And I must kill a rooster for Asclepius. So long.