The Offence Fallacy

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.

20 Comments

  1. Can we get Mr. Ngole a diversity visa? He might like living in a free country and he sounds like just the kind of guy we need here.

  2. “Motivation and circumstance can tell us why somebody used a fallacy, but they can’t remove it.”
    Most polite people say sorry when they know they’ve caused offence. When it’s deliberate they usually say nothing.

  3. Mr. Ngole’s only recourse in this loony bin court system would seem to be taking offence (and legal offense) at Professor Marsh’s stalking and invasion of is personal Facebook postings.

  4. I think the only proper response is the Steve Bannon response—you can’t be a rabid pitbull against insanity when you’re in the insane system. Ngole needs to find a place where he can repeat and scream out what was done day after day, going after the insanity from a position where he has the freedom to do so. Right now, the USA if you avoid Blue States and Universities of Insanity, you still have that right.

    I have a relative, who in a brave stance, answered to the government agency which employed them, when asked if anything on their website or in their office was offensive, stated that the LGBT stuff was most definately offensive, could they remove it please? Yes, said person is still employed, though the question may not have been asked again.

    As to Joy’s comment, if polite people say they are sorry for speaking the truth, what does that say about polite people? They condone lies???

  5. Briggs, the information in the second link is a repeat of the first link, namely that the student was expelled, and that he lost the judicial review of the expulsion, and that he will appeal the judicial ruling. I couldn’t find anything in the second link about any results from the appeal.

  6. Any idea to what extent the fired professor’s views, expressed on Facebook, may stem from the UK having what is in effect a State Religion?

    Isn’t the Church of England (headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and ultimately by the monarch) Anglican, which accommodates gay clergy/marriage to a limited extent — e.g. thru prayer if not outright marriage ceremonies or blessings — perhaps a contributing factor?

    Appears that, maybe, free-speech rights are clashing, if just a bit, with the official Church position — and that disagreement (i.e. the prof’s views are stricter than the official church’s position) might enable the courts to find against the professor. We might never know … but it would be interesting to find out what would happen if another professor in a similar position posted on their Facebook page the official Church’s position that same-sex marriage was not condoned (or whatever the official words from the official church say) … would that be sufficient to fire a faculty member?

    That’s a legal tightrope that might be interesting to pursue — where is the boundary at which one can express an orthodox view and, just barely, keep their professorship?

  7. The “might be offended” [il]logical basis for using a possible offense as a basis for taking some remedial action has been ongoing for years with the Washington Redskins football team.

    Whiners complain some indians might be offended because “Redskin” is intrinsically offensive … and sure enough, with enough such whining publicized some indians have become offended.

    Even though some 50-ish indian high school football teams have named themselves “Redskins” around the U.S. One can easily look this up.

    Apparently, it’s ok if the minority gives themselves a supposedly demeaning name but not ok if a profession team (full of minorities) does exactly the same thing — the fine line noted by that not-so-great and fictitious rock band, Spinal Tap:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrKqBlZdOTk

  8. I wondered how long it would take you Sheri,

    There are two types of people in the world. Those who care about the truth and those who pretend to do so.
    Politeness is a choice.
    I’ve just been reading an article about ‘avoiding the witch hunt’.
    Well known piece no doubt. I have no part in nor wish to have any part of any on line or real life tribe in the pejorative sense of that word.
    Nor will I be forced to take a side through allegiance or manipulation of sets or groups for the purpose of entertainment.
    Where the truth goes, that’s where I go.
    It’s child splay to simply play on line games and attack fans enemies. Ones of your own creation. It’s a clear mark of something seriously amiss. What’s more, it’s a contagion. Careful who you talk to.
    Looking forward to the day when the truth comes out.

  9. I am offended that a University would trample on free expression. Can I petition for the removal of any administrators who supported this action? Unfortunately, I am not a stake-holder, in anything associated with Sheffield university, and have no standing.

    Universities should not be safe-spaces. They are SUPPOSED to be places that challenge a persons world-view. And, that can be an unsettling experience.

  10. “Most polite people say sorry when they know they’ve caused offence. When it’s deliberate they usually say nothing.”

    When the “offense” is unreasonable or even as most are today, irrational, there should be no apology offered, even by the polite, and especially by those who are partial to truth.

    There’s a reason step one of satan’s game plan started with Eve.

  11. The one with the fake name:
    When the “offense” is unreasonable …”
    Which offence are you referring to?
    What do you mean, exactly?
    Please be honest, or make an attempt, or don’t bother me.

    As to your take on Genesis?
    Be clear, if it matters to you. The serpent is what is described, not Satan.
    Tell the truth if you’re going to try and quote it.

  12. One of my friends used to comment to the offended person, “excuse me but you have obviously mistaken me for somebody who gives a crap if you are offended.” That offended them even more.

  13. “Mr. Ngole’s only recourse in this loony bin court system would seem to be taking offence (and legal offense) at Professor Marsh’s stalking and invasion of is personal Facebook postings.”
    Yes there’s always the criminal court.
    maybe if the perpetrator does it to lots of people and they all complain about the same thing something might be done about it.
    I hope so.

  14. I thought I was clear. After you’ve finished with your husband’s computer, I suggest you make him a sandwich, and bring along with it a cold beer. Then you can get to cleaning your humble abode and tending your children. It will make you happy.

  15. @ JTLiuzza

    “There’s a reason step one of satan’s game plan started with Eve.”

    Is it because Genesis simply reflects the ignorant, misogynistic time and place in which it was written?

  16. Faker and liar,
    Untrue, all of what you said. Don’t let it get in the way of a good story though.
    This computer business? Tell me more? You sound like the rat I’ve been looking for.
    I have two computers and on belonged to my Father. How interesting that you have some limited, incline that there are more than one device? Hmmm.

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