Stupid Offense

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Somtimes it's morally important to recognize that someone may inappropriately and irrationally be offended by something you do. It's worth going the extra mile to prevent their offense, even if that offense stems from something silly. Other things are more important than the little amount of effort it might take to avoid that offense.

But aren't there times when giving in to stupid reasons for offense is catering to dangerous trends and opening the door for complete abandonment of careful thought? Perhaps a good example of something that stupid would be asking Santas to avoid saying "ho, ho, ho" for fear of offending women who think you're calling them prostitutes. There are enough serious worries in this world about people using terms that are actually offensive to women that putting serious effort into telling your employees this kind of thing just seems like a waste of time.

What's worse is that this trivializes the kind of language necessary to address real social ills. This kind of warning insults anyone who has actually been called a ho (and in fact all women, since all have been subject to blanket descriptions of all women as hos). If you can't distinguish between real misogyny or sexism and something that no reasonable person could take as anything but innocent, then your moral priorities are so twisted that I'd rather not have you giving moral recommendations to anyone.

Update: Snopes debunks this. The reason had nothing to do with confusing the sound "ho" with the U.S. slang for prostitute but just to avoid such a deep, booming laugh. But this strikes me as harder to believe than most of the stuff coming out of Snopes, bedause another report from Australia later that week had someone actually getting fired for exactly these reasons, and I thought the source for that was pretty reliable (not that I remember it now).

4 Comments

I think you're right, that we've lost sight of the concept of being a reasonable person. A few years ago, a Boston newspaper was up in arms because one of its columnists used the term "niggardly." Instead of pointing out the simple fact that that isn't related to the "n-word," the paper danced around the issue trying to apologize.

There are things that people should avoid simply to be polite and to avoid the possibility of offense. But on the other side, people should use some sense of reason in order not to take offense.

There are at least two morally important differences between this case and people getting upset at 'niggardly'.

1. I'm talking about some supposedly socially-conscious white boss telling employees not to do something inoffensive, out of a fear that people might actually be offended. That's not social consciousness. It's being out-of-touch with what really is offensive. On the other hand, the cases with 'niggardly' involve someone actually offending someone and then having to deal with the consequences.

2. The offense in this case is almost certainly never going to happen. People have more than once been offended at the use of the word 'niggardly'. It's not a common word anymore, whereas it takes complete social isolation not to know that Santa's "ho, ho, ho" is simply his laugh and has nothing to do with prostitutes. In fact, someone who doesn't know that about Santa probably also isn't in tune with pop culture enough to know that a ho is a prostitute.

That being said, people who get offended at 'niggardly' often (but not always) fail at an important moral obligation. If they see the word in print, get offended, and write a letter to the editor, then they surely have enough time to look the word up in a dictionary. Thus they're at least negligent in their moral duty with respect to their false claim of racism against an actually innocent person.

Also, it takes more ignorance than just not knowing the fairly rare word. It takes not recognizing the difference in spelling between the offensive word and the inoffensive one. The word 'niggard' is even more rare than 'niggardly', but if I called someone a niggard and put it in print somewhere, it should be clear from the 'a' and the 'd' that it's not the same word as the offensive one. That should give someone pause as to the assumption that it's offensive, even if they haven't had the chance to look it up in the dictionary. Adding an adverbial ending shouldn't change that too much, and neither should hearing it pronounced given that the 'd' is still audible even if the difference in vowel isn't.

Nevertheless, I think someone can hear the word quickly, not notice the 'd' sound, and assume the word was something else. It's in audible cases that someone using the word, particularly around uneducated people, ought to explain what the word means. If you're going to do that, you might as well just use a different word anyway, except in certain contexts.

I've seen the word in the last two weeks in translations of Aristotle and Kant. I didn't need to use it in class with Kant, so I didn't. It's not worth it in case someone decides to make an issue of it. With Aristotle it might be necessary, so I might use it and explain what the word means. But I think a case can be made that minimizing the use of this word can avoid problems that are worth avoiding, whereas I don't think the same is true at all of Santa saying "ho, ho, ho".

I'm with you 100% on this one.

Oh my goodness, don't even get me going! My daughter told me about this one, and all I could envision was how stupid Santa would look bellowing Ha Ha Ha!

As for niggardly...it's not really such an obscure word. For people who READ. I'm pretty certain people just have way too much time on their hands when they are dreaming these offenses up. If one was up to their elbows in actually trying to make the world a better place, one would not have time to waste on such silliness.

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