One of the interesting (by which I mean infuriating) aspects of contemporary discourse is a notion I’ve mentioned on a few occasions, the Marcusean concept of “repressive tolerance” — the idea that ideas from “wrong” (which for Marcuse meant non-progressive) viewpoints should be suppressed. In our culture, this plays out in the form of political correctness; in others? Ask Salman Rushdie or Molly Norris. This, of course, flies in the face of the necessity for open, rational discussion at the heart of the Western tradition — which is exactly why it’s endorsed by would-be dictators, whether they would rule on behalf of the proles or Allah.
When confronted with this illiberality, many advocates of repressive tolerance tend either to resort to some form of Godwin’s Law (“Should we really let Nazis have their say?” The answer, by the way, is “Yes — so we can remember how repugnant they are.”) or a claim that all they really want is “civil discourse” that doesn’t offend anyone. This latter approach creates a situation in which the most hypersensitive participant (whether actually or disingenuously hypersensitive) gets to set the boundaries of a discussion — hardly a recipe for productive conversation. Again, for certain people, that’s exactly the point.
In this setting, then, the notions of offense and offensiveness are themselves contentious. Stefan Collini has entered this discussion with a new book, That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect, which Isaac Chotiner reviews at The New Republic. The review’s conclusion is interesting:
Collini offhandedly mentions something that is infrequently recognized about cultural relativism: that no one is intellectually consistent in their relativism. Those most fond of relativist arguments, for example, are the first to belittle American politics and culture. The conclusion is obvious, and important: if relativism were widely and consistently embraced, and criticism were increasingly stifled, the results would be both boring and sinister.
The fact that the folks at TNR find this remarkable enough to publish is telling; the fact that they do recognize it, however belatedly, is encouraging.