The Offence Fallacy is perhaps the most popular bad argument used to dismiss Truths which are uncomfortable to us moderns. It is best illustrated in a real example.
Here are the salient details from the story “Court – Student can be expelled for quoting Bible on Facebook“.
Felix Ngole is a Masters student in Social Work at Sheffield university. “In 2015 he made comments using his personal Facebook account” on Christian beliefs about marriage, saying among other things this Truth: “same sex marriage is a sin whether we like it or not. It is God’s words and man’s sentiments would not change His words”.
Nearly two months later, Mr Ngole received an email from a university official informing him that his Facebook comments were being investigated. He was later interviewed by an investigatory team, and subsequently removed from his course by a panel chaired by Professor Marsh, an LGBT rights campaigner.
Ngole objected and brought the matter to the High Court, which ruled “that the university acted lawfully in removing Mr Ngole from his course.”
The court heard that the university “investigatory team accepted that Mr Ngole was fully entitled to his religious beliefs, and had acted with honesty and integrity”. The university held that it was not Mr Ngole’s views that were at issue, but his public posting of these views. They held that this expression of his views “may have caused offence to some individuals”.
The university argued that they were right to sanction Mr Ngole and bar him from his chosen profession in spite of the fact that Mr Ngole had lawfully expressed his Christian views as a practicing Christian, outside of his professional studies, in a context in which he was not identified as a social work student, and despite this expression having no impact on his work and professional abilities.
The first error to note is the use of the word “may” in “may have caused offence”. Ngole’s posts did cause actual offence in “Professor Marsh, an LGBT rights campaigner”.
Now the judge in the case agreed that Ngole’s posts “were undoubtedly intended by him to convey a religious perspective.” He said:
Freedom of expression is an important right. Exercising that right to express the content of deeply held religious views deserves respect in a democratic and plural society, nowhere more so than in a university. Freedom of religious discourse is a public good of great importance and seriousness.
Further, the “university agreed that there had been no cause for concern or evidence of Mr Ngole acting in a discriminatory fashion, whether on placement or otherwise. The university’s decision was not based on speculation that Mr Ngole would discriminate in the future either. No discrimination has actually occurred, or is expected to occur in this case.”
Nevertheless, the court ruled:
It was how [Ngole’s comments] could be accessed and read by people who would perceive them as judgemental [sic], incompatible with service ethos, or suggestive of discriminatory intent. That was a problem in its own right. …[ellipsis original] But whatever the actual intention was, it was the perception of the posting that would cause the damage. It was reasonable to be concerned about that perception.
Ngole was thus booted, and as of this writing he is appealing. Last moment update: he lost his appeal (link fixed).
Can offence be used to censor Truth? Let us suppose so.
I am offended—this is true—by the acts of the court, of Sheffield university, and of Professor Marsh. Ngole is also so offended. But then Marsh and presumably others at Sheffield were offended by Ngole’s postings. There are contradicting or opposing states of being offended.
There is a question at hand, a decision to be made: to boot Ngole or not. One of these will be the correct decision, and one wrong. Can we decide based on weighting states of offence? For instance, if more people would be offended were Ngole to be booted than would be offended were Ngole to be retained, therefore the correct decision is to retain him.
Or maybe vote totals of people offended on either side of the question isn’t right, but depth of offense should be measured, so that the side that evinces greater “outrage” (or blue hair dye) wins the decision?
Obviously these are absurd positions. That somebody is offended by exposure to a proposition says nothing about whether that proposition is true. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. And if offence says nothing about the truth of a proposition, then offence cannot be used in a decision which hinges on the proposition, as the decision whether to boot Ngole hinges on the proposition that “it is impossible for two men to be married.”
The Offence Fallacy is a particularly effeminate fallacy, because it contains the implicit premise that whatever “outrages” a (usually) woman, that thing cannot therefore be spoken of. The premise is also fallacious and self-defeating, because that premise itself is outrageous.
Closely related to the Outrage Fallacy is the Judgmentalism Fallacy, which we’ll do another day.
It is also obvious that it is not offence which is Ngole’s secular sin, but Christianity. This is proved by the thought experiment imagining what would have happened were Ngloe a Muslim. Because, of course, Muslims also hold to the Truth on this question.