When taboos become taboo
Again, on the theme of Paul Graham's article about things you can't say, I have an odd one: there are a lot of environments where it's becoming indefensible to admit that anything offends you. I'm reminded of this most powerfully by the various and sundry arguments about Ubuntu showing a bit of skin.
Of course, this tiptoeing around offence isn't everywhere, far from it. Witness the weekly media circus in Australia where someone says something that isn't in line with a secular liberal viewpoint. Relevant interest groups immediately issue press releases demanding a full apology. If the Prime Minister and his advisers think that the silent conservatives would agree with the stated viewpoint, they tough it out, but if it was too far out of line (as a rough guide, implying to the press that homosexuals are paedophiles is on the wrong side of that line) the unfortunate speaker gets fed to the media wolves to deliver a scripted 'apology'.
I'm on-board the liberal secular peace train with a first class ticket and I still find the regular demands for, and occasionally delivery of, these stupid meaningless apologies unbelievably teeth-grindingly infuriating, because you don't get a liberal secular world by making everyone pretend that you already have one.
However, when liberal secular sorts argue amongst themselves about morality, it's often possible to get a real rhetorical advantage just by refusing to be offended. By anything. You want the age of consent lowered to 18 months. You want people to have sex with strangers in boring queues. You want to be able to urinate artistically on trains. OK, perhaps I'm exaggerating. Maybe you just don't have a nudity taboo, or you're OK with people getting a little bit horny in your workplace. Fine. But how is it that that means that you represent the vanguard of the human race?
Whoever is offended in these arguments, especially if they're offended by anything that can be potentially tied to the full and free expression of human creativity or sexuality, is standing on very slippery ground. If you're offended, you've delivered the following advantages to your opponent: you're a conservative; you're repressed; and you're holding humanity back. You can see some particularly prime examples in the Ubuntu debate, because challenging conventional notions of how you develop popular software can sometimes get people a little high on the "we're changing humanity one user at a time, as if by magic" pipe.
Offence is a part of the weaponry of the social conservatives. It's also part of the weaponry of real progressives, except they invert it and are offended by conservatism or reminders that it exists (in its pathological form you get the apology packhounds with their ready made outraged press releases).
And I think it's time that the voice of offence got a little ground back in some other arguments too, because calls to be freer and less repressed are all too often just a rhetorical weapon used to make people feel like they're not toeing the humanist party line. In other words, they're a way of shutting you up by making you feel bad about yourself and inferior to the super beings around you who have cast off their taboos. Sound very liberated? Sound like you're all part of the one great push to make the world a better place? Thought not. So have a bit more respect for other people's funny little lines they don't like to cross.
Last modified: 29 October 2006