The Ins and Outs of Offenses and Criticisms


This volume is only sixty-seven pages long, and small pages too, but Collini, a distinguished historian of ideas, has written a powerfully argued manifesto on the subject of offense and criticism. The book is neither densely philosophical nor as militant as books that have covered some some of the same ground, such as Robert Hughes’s The Culture of Complaint. But Collini’s deft dismantling of various forms of cultural relativism—conveyed in clear and concise prose—are sure to be debated and discussed by anyone who engages with his important essay. His decision to forego real world examples and instead focus on principles slyly puts the reader in mind of recent controversies (such as the one over Danish cartoons) while contributing to the clarity of his argument.

Collini begins by defining “offense.” From a dictionary entry, he writes that the taking of offense is often seen as intensely related to one’s feelings. [This] may suggest, he writes, “that if someone does not feel offended, they have not been offended. And this may in turn seem to entail the reverse proposition, namely that each individual is the only possible judge of whether or not they have been offended.” For claims of offense to be given respect, however, an objective standard needs to have been violated by the offender. No one, for example, is offended by people who snore in their sleep. We might find them annoying, but they do not offend us. Nor is sympathy always granted to those who claim to have taken offense. To say of someone that they “do not easily take offence” is to compliment them, Collini notes. The bar, in other words, is higher than it could be.

More at TNR. The book under review is That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect by Stefan Collini, published by the ever-more-impressive Seagull Books.

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