Intolerant liberalism and the ethics of offence

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Intolerant liberalism and the ethics of offence

Sean Walsh discusses the case of Harry Miller who was contacted by Humberside Police after he “liked” a limerick said to be offensive to the LGBT community and explores the broader implications the incident raises for the emergence of ‘intolerant liberalism’.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20 “A Woman’s Face with Nature’s Own Hand Painted”? The poet addresses the work to the “master-mistress of his passion”. Scholars have long debated whether the poem is intended as a “confession” of Shakespeare’s homosexuality. There is, however, a far more malignant set of assumptions in play within the structure of the poem: The Bard seems to be making a transphobic connection between gender and biology – his clear subtext is that the latter determines the former.

I will not quote the sonnet in full because I don’t want to be getting the Early Morning Knock.

Paranoid? Quite possibly. Then again, something similar recently happened to Harry Miller who was contacted by Humberside Police after he “liked” a limerick said to be offensive to the LGBT community. The police, apparently, needed to “check his thinking”. What, one speculates, was it about his thinking that was in urgent need of such a consultation? Were they wondering whether Mr Miller had a view as to whether the limerick would have been better expressed in the form of iambic pentameter? Somehow one doubts it.

Shakespeare himself cheated justice by dying some 400 years before the police decided to become the enforcement arm of our contemporary culture of grievance. He was wise to do so. The madness has now well and truly descended. The police in Humberside made an inference: from the fact that offence had been freely taken it was inferred that it had been freely offered; as if “offence” names a tangible item in the world, one which can be seamlessly passed along a chain of responsibility. But offence is not like that, and a true account of it is an account of the structure of thought. If there are ethical questions surrounding the giving of offence, then there are concomitant questions of ethics surrounding the taking of it.

We are not merely passive players upon the stage of our spiritual life. We have choices in respect of the way that we feel just as we have choices in respect of the way that we act. Why? Because when we feel we also act. A complete and proper account of the human soul will acknowledge its active as well as its passive nature: we are creatures not simply of intellect but of will. Aristotle put the point something like this: human flourishing is in the end an activity of the soul in accordance with the requirements of virtue.

One of the primary Aristotelian virtues is temperance. Yes, it is on occasion right to take offence, or to be angry, but only at the right person, to the right degree, for the right reason and for the right amount of time. To get that wrong is to harm yourself, and to fail to try and get it right is to neglect yourself. The proper calibration of your soul is in the end your responsibility. Our human agency supplies us with obligations not merely in our actions but also in our feelings. Being subjected to views you don’t like is a necessary condition of moral growth. If you take offence then that is because you are taking offence, not simply being in receipt of it.

An example from the pen of High Wycombe’s greatest poet makes the point. What is love? According to St Paul love is the act of willing the good of the other as other. It is not primarily a phenomenon of feeling but a way of ordering your soul. It is a form of obligation. The highest Christian obligation demands that we are agents in the development of feeling, rather than passive responders to it.

Aristotle and St Paul are not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not even the case that Aristotle was St Paul’s cup of tea. But we’d do well not to indulge in the sort of chronological chauvinism that would dismiss them on grounds of age. Aristotelian metaphysics (and therefore the ethics that flow from it) are making a sort of comeback in contemporary philosophy; like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino the philosopher who trumps all others is teaching the young ‘uns a thing or two.

The High Priests of Perpetual Offence Taking are disseminating a form of response to life’s vagaries which would infantilise the rest of us. They get away with this because they have learned to shout the loudest. The emotionally and spiritually incontinent always do.

Bob Dylan wrote that “if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine”. The tricoteuses have been notified and, in Humberside at least, they have police protection.

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  • Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh is a former university teacher of philosophy. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and his current research interests are in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is also interested in philosophical issues around addiction. He lives in Wiltshire and works with addiction and recovery agencies, and with a homeless charity. He runs a lot.
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