The uses of polemic

Some further thoughts on ‘offensive’ writing and cartoons and such. One issue is whether or not we know in advance that people will be outraged. I claimed, sweepingly, in comments, that we can’t know, and Jerry S prodded me into acknowledging that sometimes we can. Fair point. It’s easy (he demonstrated!) to come up with something we can be quite confident will outrage some people. True; and I also agreed that I don’t like or value mere abuse, and feel no need to make a principled defense of it. But I do value polemic, including polemic that can be considered harsh or mocking and that thus can be considered very likely to outrage at least some people. The further thoughts are about why I value it and think it can be worth the risk of offending some people.

I value it because even though we can know that polemic X will (almost certainly) offend some people, we can’t know how many, and we also can’t know how many people in the group or ‘community’ likely to be offended will be not offended but amused, surprised, startled, even shocked, without being offended. We can’t know how many people might be surprised or shocked into thinking in a new way, a way which would be beneficial to them. People do change their minds, after all; people do learn new things, and move, and adapt, and grow (or shrink). That does happen, and it seems to me that it is lively, sharp, combative writing or cartooning that is likely to spark such change. I don’t think it is inherently bad for people to have their settled ideas challenged; on the contrary, I think it’s good. I think writers like Dawkins wake people up in a way that politer, more mollifying writers don’t. I think a certain amount of bluntness and even scorn (for ideas or beliefs, not for people) wakes people up in a way that respect doesn’t.

In other words, scorn and mockery can be liberating. They can be and they very often are. We can suddenly realize ‘Oh – we can laugh at that!’ That’s a huge relief for some people. For others it’s an outrage. That’s the difficulty. I suppose one reason the prior restraint by respect idea makes me bristle is that it is biased toward the people who will be outraged, at the expense of the people who will be liberated. And that’s where not knowing comes in – we really don’t know how many there will be of either. I think the respect idea tends to push us in the direction of assuming there will be lots of people outraged and hurt, while forgetting the possibility of other people being liberated. Even more insidiously, perhaps, I think it pushes us in the direction of worrying more about the potentially outraged than we do about the potentially liberated. I’m not sure that’s the right way to allot our concern. It’s bad to hurt people, so it is right to take the risk into account – but then if when taking it into account it seems to us that 1) the people who are hurt are hurt for dubious reasons and 2) the potentially liberated need concern just as much as the potentially hurt do, then – you get the drift.

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