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Offense 101

October 23rd, 2012 · 25 Comments

American politics sometimes seems like a contest to see which group of partisans can take greater umbrage at the most recent outrageous remark from a member of the opposing tribe.  As a mild countermeasure, I offer a modest proposal for American universities. All freshmen should be required to take a course called “Offense 101,” where the readings will consist of arguments from across the political and philosophical spectrum that some substantial proportion of the student body is likely to find offensive. Selections from The Bell Curve. Essays from one of the New Atheists and one of their opponents, and from hardcore pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” monograph. Defenses of eugenics, torture, violent revolution, authoritarianism, aggressive censorship, and absolute free speech. Positive reviews of the Star Wars prequels. Assemble your own curriculum—there’s no shortage of material.

For each reading, students will have to make a good faith, unironic effort to reconstruct the offensive argument in its most persuasive form, marshaling additional supporting evidence and amending weak arguments to better support the author’s conclusion. Points deducted if an observer can tell the student doesn’t really agree with the position they’re defending.

Only after this phase is complete will students be allowed to begin rebutting the arguments. Anyone who thinks it’s relevant to point out that the argument is offensive (or bigoted, sexist, unpatriotic, fascistic, communistic, whatever) will receive a patronizing look from the professor that says: “Yes,  obviously, did you not read the course title? Let’s move on.” Insofar as these labels are shorthand for an argument that certain categories of views are wrong and can be rejected as a class, the actual argument will have to be presented. Following the rebuttal phase, students will be randomly assigned to a side for an in-class debate.

On the last day of the course, but not before then, students will be allowed to vent opinions regarding the degree of moral or intellectual depravity that could permit someone to write such appalling things. Until Venting Day, everyone is obligated to maintain the tone they’d use if they were evaluating papers from an experimental physics journal.

The point, of course, is not that we should all be Vulcans about contentious political issues, or that it isn’t sometimes perfectly sufficient to point out that an argument is repulsive and bigoted, and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. Life is too short to pretend that every screed out there merits a reasoned response. But let’s face it, a lot of our fellow citizens believe appalling things—yet remain our fellow citizens. There’s value in developing the capacity to respond dispassionately to those beliefs, so that even when we decide not to exercise it, it’s a choice rather than a reflex. And if a generation that’s gone through this training starts to regard the practitioners of fishing-for-outrage politics as faintly ridiculous, well, call that a perk.

Addendum: This will, of course, be show the first day…

Tags: Academia · Horse Race Politics



25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 MFarmer // Oct 23, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    “But let’s face it, a lot of our fellow citizens believe appalling things—yet remain our fellow citizens.”

    Who are you to decide what’s appalling? I can’t imagine a more offensive comment than this one. Hitler also decided what was appalling and what wasn’t, so you’re in good company pal.

  • 2 Pete // Oct 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    @mfarmer No one is allowed to make judgements about what is appalling or not? There are no ideas that are appalling to you? By that logic, who are you to decide what is offensive? You somehow combined anti intellectualism with a holier than thou attitude. Congrats

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Oct 23, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    So, uh, would you say Hitler’s beliefs were appalling?

  • 4 MFarmer // Oct 23, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Good God — you two didn’t know I was joking? Sorry, but I thought it was obvious with the Hitler reference and all. Oh my.

  • 5 MFarmer // Oct 23, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    You see, the article was about over-reacting, so I over-re…oh, nevermind.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Oct 23, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Ok, sorry, I had that “Is that a joke?” moment but misjudged

  • 7 MFarmer // Oct 23, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Online, I should always use a smiley face.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Oct 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Also, I probably should not check my comments from my phone while at bars.

  • 9 MFarmer // Oct 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    Ha, yes, a series of missteps for sure.

  • 10 K. Chen // Oct 24, 2012 at 9:34 am

    While I agree with this proposal, I also have taken a lot of course work in argumentation such as forensics, forensics again, debate, history courses, and oh, right, law school.

    From what I’ve seen, the education does limited work in building the attitude, it mostly refines the skill set. There has to be a predisposition for looking at issues as a thing to be understood rather than what color flag to pin on your lapel.

  • 11 Angie VanDeMerwe // Oct 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Excellent idea…valuable on many fronts. And one that would help alleviate future “culture wars”…

  • 12 Szescstopni // Oct 24, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Thisquite long quote from Kipling’s “Stalky & Co” shows how teen cadets in the late 19th century learned to deal with offence:

    At the “break-off” the ranks stood fast. Perowne fell out, faced them, and, refreshing his memory by glimpses at a red-bound, metal-clasped book, drilled them for ten minutes. (This is that Perowne who was shot in Equatorial Africa by his own men.) Ansell followed him, and Hogan followed Ansell. All three were implicitly obeyed. Then Stalky laid aside his Snider, and, drawing a long breath, favored the company with a blast of withering invective.

    “‘Old ‘ard, Muster Corkran. That ain’t in any drill,” cried Foxy.

    “All right, Sergeant. You never know what you may have to say to your men.—For pity’s sake, try to stand up without leanin’ against each other, you blear-eyed, herrin’-gutted gutter-snipes. It’s no pleasure to me to comb you out. That ought to have been done before you came here, you—you militia broom-stealers.”

    “The old touch—the old touch. We know it,” said Keyte, wiping his rheumy eyes. “But where did he pick it up?”

    “From his father—or his uncle. Don’t ask me! Half of ’em must have been born within earshot o’ the barracks.” (Foxy was not far wrong in his guess.) “I’ve heard more back-talk since this volunteerin’ nonsense began than I’ve heard in a year in the service.”

    “There’s a rear-rank man lookin’ as though his belly were in the pawn-shop. Yes, you, Private Ansell,” and Stalky tongue-lashed the victim for three minutes, in gross and in detail.

    “Hullo!” He returned to his normal tone. “First blood to me. You flushed, Ansell. You wriggled.”

    “Couldn’t help flushing,” was the answer. “Don’t think I wriggled, though.”

    “Well, it’s your turn now.” Stalky resumed his place in the ranks.

  • 13 S. Weasel // Oct 24, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Oof. I guess. It would be a bit of a skeeve-out to have to construct the strongest possible case for something I found utterly reprehensible. I don’t like to invite the abyss to have a gaze back at me.

  • 14 roystgnr // Oct 25, 2012 at 9:28 am

    In practice, would the topics covered by such a course be likely to look like “our tribe’s extremes, their tribe’s extremes, bigots, fascists, and communists”, or more like “their tribe’s extremes, bigots, fascists, and communists”? If I really wanted to take a swing at “the opposing tribe”, I might be willing to lose the ability to feign “their ideas are too offensive to even consider” if I get to replace it with “no ideas are too offensive to briefly consider, but theirs are (literally!) in the same class as the Nazis”. If I wasn’t consciously trying to move the Overton Window but I was still a normal biased human being, I might simply consider extremists on my tribe’s side to be good-heartedly mistaken while extremists on the other tribe’s side are objectively offensive.

  • 15 Nick de Vera // Oct 26, 2012 at 7:09 am

    But… Brawndo’s got what plants crave… It’s got electrolytes@

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  • 18 RobF // Oct 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I am symptathetic to your sentiment and your solution, but I think you have not fully addressed the question of why. Why is American politics often a contest in umbrage? I would offer two reasons, neither of which is addressed by your proposed solution:

    1. Umbrage is the high-fructose corn syrup of political infotainment. It is extremely inexpensive to produce and caters to broad and deep consumer demand for low-cost, low-effort stimulation.

    2. It’s the political equivalent of the “motion to dismiss” gambit deployed against the claims of rival litigants. If you can convince enough people that an argument is beyond the pale (and my point is that you often can), then you can skip the tedious work of marshalling an effective argument on the merits. Case dismissed.

    We won’t see less umbrage until it stops selling so well and stops working so well.

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  • 21 Christopher Wright // Nov 3, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Comments 1-5 to this article make me love this article that much more.

    That said, I think I would fail this class. I’d fail it a lot, since I assume in a world where this class exists I would reasonably be expected to pass it in order to graduate, so I’d wind up taking it multiple times.

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