Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"What is offense, really?"

Credit: Game-Over-Custom,
I wrote that very question rhetorically in a rather lengthy rant against college speech codes back in November of last year, with the implied answer being that they were subjective. After taking several brain science courses, including cognitive and physiological psychology, it occurred to me that this question actually remains remarkably unanswered. A quick library database search found no scientifically rigorous books on the phenomenon of "offence," though I'm quite sure we can all agree it is a very real experience indeed, with equally real consequences.

My prima facie hypothesis on the nature of offence is essentially that it is the limbic system's response to perceived threats to an individual's or an individual's family's or group's social status (the 3rd and 4th tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs). Basic behavioral biology and game theory would easily explain why both our offence triggers and reactions are so varied and malleable. It could even explain why a soccer player would headbutt another player over a yo-mamma joke.

I've emailed by psychology professors and asked Reddit if there are current scientific paradigms about the experience of offence. If that fails (and given the remarkable lack of material online about the subject, it seems likely), I'll see if I can figure out a way to test my hypothesis and answer some of the following questions:

1. What is the substance of offence? Is it related to the limbic system, or to particular chemicals?
2. What are the physiological symptoms (if any) of the experience of taking offence?
3. Is taking offence in any way comparable to the experience of physical pain?
4. What are the most common and reliable triggers of offence? Are there universal triggers?
5. What is the evolutionary explanation for the phenomenon of taking offence?
6. How easy is it to change, eliminate, or impose offensive triggers?
7. Are there some things we should be offended by? Some things we are, but shouldn't be?

Given the political and legal importance of not hurting people's feelings in today's society, it is intriguing that these questions don't appear to have been subjected to serious scientific inquiry. The answers, particularly to questions 3, 4, and 6, are ones we really should have or at least be discussing when talking about issues of free speech, bullying, and related legal issues of a subjective nature.

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