Subjective vs. normative offensiveness

Terms like offensive are often used in a manner that blurs the boundaries between two different, but related concepts. Let’s suppose that Alex send Billy an email that he finds offensive. We can say that the email is subjectively offensive if it causes Billy to feel offended. On the other hand, we can say that it is normatively offensive if Alex has taken an action that deserves to be criticised morally. The former does not prove the later. For example, Alex might tell Billy that he saw a recent Mets game and that he thought their pitcher didn’t play very well. Billy might be a huge Mets fan and find this offensive. Clearly the Alex was subjectively offensive (relative to Billy), but few people would say that he was normatively offensive. This requires something extra, such as if Alex had made a similar comment before and seen that it had upset Billy we might be more willing to conclude that Alex deserved the criticism.

Billy is entitled to feel an emotional reaction and feel offended (subjectively). It would be hard to argue that he isn’t as can be incredibly difficult or impossible to suppress such a reaction. However, he is not entitled to act like Alex was normatively offensive purely based on his subjective appraisal. He needs to consider the actual reasonableness of Alex’s actions and the broader social context. Sadly, this normally results in very messy conversations. One side will be arguing, “You shouldn’t be (normatively) offended”, with the other saying that they have every right to be (subjectively) offended.

At this point, I should clarify the greatest misunderstanding based upon feedback in the comments. Normative here simply refers to some kind of moral standard; to the making of claims that people should act in a particular way. It doesn’t depend on the assumption that morality is objective; just that the person operates within some kind of moral framework that leaves their moral assertions open to challenge by others. In regard to culturally relativism, normative is being used to mean “locally normative”; normative within the particular cultural context; rather than “globally normative”. Even if you believe that morality is purely personal, you probably have some meta-level beliefs that can be used to challenge or justify your object level beliefs.

I think that this discussion is well understood for the word offensive, but it is less well understood for the term creepy. Suppose there is a man who has unfortunately born to be incredibly ugly. People may find it subjectively creepy for him to just walk into the room. However, it isn’t normatively creepy for him to enter the room; you can’t criticise him merely for the action.

This is enough to resolve many discussions about creepiness. Someone’s age when they age you out or someone being unattractive may make them subjectively creepy. This is an emotional response and we can’t expect people to suppress all of their emotional responses. However, it requires extra work to prove that something is normatively creepy. In particular, there needs to be a reference to some kind of moral rule or social contract. Like if a 20 year old wanted to criticise a 40 year old for being normatively creepy for asking them out, they’d have to argue that they have broken some social or moral rule like, “Don’t ask someone out half your age”. They would then have to justify this rule; arguing purely from their own subjective point of view would be insufficient.

Many people will say that when they said that something was offensive that they only meant it was offensive from their own perspective. However, people are almost forced to respond as though it was meant in the normative sense. These words are used in a social environment and any such comment carries a significant chance that people will judge them as guilty in some normative sense, even if that wasn’t what you meant. If you really want to mean it in the subjective sense, then you need to add padding around it or it will be misunderstood. Scott Alexander wrote a good article on this about Weak Men, but I won’t link directly to it as it is likely to be very controversial.

Lastly, this relates strongly to Motte and Bailey doctrine. It can often be very convenient for someone to say that an action is offensive (with the assumption being that it is offensive in the normative sense) and then fall back down to saying that they were only personally offended when the other person tries to defend them self, then start talking about being offended in the normative sense again, right after. Please don’t do this.

The purpose of this article wasn’t just to draw this distinction, but to also provide terminology to make these distinctions as clear as possible. Please try to avoid argumentation in the comments about the actual object level issues as I have tried to avoid directly tackling the issue of who is or isn’t correct and to keep it at the level of how to generally approach these issues.