AMERICANS TRAVELING ABROAD often hear this country discussed with great passion and intensity. These discussions, it will not surprise even homebodies to learn, are often critical. Nor is it surprising that the criticisms range from the uninformed to the witheringly acute; they fall on the same spectrum as American self-criticism. Foreigners can be imprecise or simply misinformed about this country—I remember being asked at a small bookstore in New Delhi why Americans would never elect a president with a postgraduate degree—but a unique (at least to us) perspective can also yield real insight. Different news sources or cultural reference points will produce distinct analyses. No criticism is invalid simply because of the critic; what matters are the opinions themselves.
I once listened to a large German baker in a café in downtown Frankfurt impugn American voters for voting George W. Bush into the White House. I nodded and occasionally interjected a thought or two while doing my best not to react defensively. Here was a Hessian who understood politics, and was simply outraged by the administration’s policies—policies that the American people had in some measure validated by reelecting the president. He had substantive reasons for his anger. But try commenting, as an American, on Indian or German politics in the same tones and with the same vehemence, and see the result.
After the man’s interrupted monologue, I mentioned that the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, had gone off to work for Vladimir Putin’s cronies at Gazprom, the Russian energy behemoth. Upon hearing this, the man looked sternly at me and said that Americans had no right to lecture or criticize Germany, especially after Abu Ghraib and Bush’s foolish comment about Putin’s soul. He was offended that an American would dare call into question the ethical choices of a German leader, and, by implication, of German voters. Germany is hardly a poor or struggling country, but it does not share America’s power and standing, and criticism is too often defined as acceptable when it is made against the “more powerful” and offensive when it is made against the “less powerful.” If this is in part a positive sign that people are sensitive to the less fortunate, it is also a threat to uninhibited intellectual inquiry.
I now wish I could fly back to Germany and give my interlocutor a copy of Stefan Collini’s book. 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 forgo 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.
Collini is also aware that in many societies today, free speech is highly valued, even at the cost of offense. “If we confine ourselves to the traditional form of the debate about ‘free speech,’ it is not difficult for those of a liberal disposition that the rights of criticism should be guaranteed in any tolerably open society, even when the activity risks giving offence to some of those being criticized.” And yet Collini sees the outlines of a problem: “Those who think of themselves as committed to ‘progressive’ moral and political causes have come to believe that two of the central requirements of an enlightened global politics are, first, treating all other people with equal respect and, second, trying to avoid words or deeds which threaten to compound existing disadvantages.”
Treating people with respect is a fine goal, but Collini notices that respect tends to be shown with special deference to so-called “out groups.” Claims of offense that would otherwise be ignored are instead given credence and even deference. Collini also correctly identifies the people who tend to fall into this trap. Very few “progressive” forces, for example, would have shown any “understanding” of hurt Christian feelings if Jesus had been mocked in a Danish newspaper. The entire force of the argument against the offensiveness of the Danish cartoons was based on the concern that Muslims were somehow less powerful than other religious believers. But this hardly qualifies as an adequate justification for a double standard.
This is Collini’s central passage: “Where arguments are concerned—that is, matters that are pursued by means of reasons and evidence—the most important identity we can acknowledge in another person is the identity of being an intelligent reflective human being.” And in case this seems too easy or too glib, he adds:
“This does not mean assuming that people are entirely—or even primarily—rational, and it does not mean that people are, in practice, always and only persuaded by reasons and evidence. It means treating other people as we wish to be treated ourselves in this matter—namely, as potentially capable of understanding the grounds for any action or statement that concerns us. But to so treat them means that, where reason and evidence are concerned, they cannot be thought of as primarily defined by being members of the ‘Muslim community or ‘Black community’ or ‘gay community.’”
What is crucial here is the ability of people to evaluate and to criticize, and to not feel as if their doing so is given more or less respect based on the groups to which they belong. Their words do not gain force or lose force—or “credibility,” to deploy a nonsensical and overused term—because of their specific identities.
The related point, which Collini also touches upon, is that if one decides to criticize a culture or a tradition or a work of art, doing so is not an act of Western arrogance. Criticism is not Western or Eastern or Christian or Jewish, and those facing criticism—and those societies and cultures facing criticism—should respond in a spirit of openness about truth. To withhold criticism from certain communities or religions is, in Collini’s word, a form of condescension towards them. It denies these groups the ability to engage in constructive dialogue, and to fortify their own values. In the final analysis, everyone loses.
Collini does not adequately address the issue of when people should take offense, because his focus is on the inequitable way in which offense is deemed valid. Moreover, his vision of the public square, where ideas find free flow among honest debaters, may strike some as too optimistic. There is no such public square yet in existence. (He acknowledges this criticism). But he ends very strongly: “When engaged in public argument … do not be so afraid of giving offence that you allow bad arguments to pass as though they were good ones, and do not allow your proper concern for the vulnerable to exempt their beliefs and actions from that kind of rational scrutiny to which you realize, in principle, your own beliefs must also be subjected.”
And 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.
Isaac Chotiner is executive editor of The Book.