Offence and Intent

There have been a several incidents recently where a person has caused offence by their actions and language, and been accused of racism. Roger Scruton said that Chinese people were like robots, Danny Baker tweeted a picture of a chimpanzee, Priti Patel used an antisemitic dog-whistle, Louise Ellman faced deselection on Yom Kippur, and Alastair Stewart quoted Shakespeare.1
In each case, when a complaint has been voiced, other people have chimed in to say that the offence caused was unintended.
But this only fans the flames of the row. Those who have taken offence (or those who are offended on their behalf) claim that the intent of the person giving offence doesn’t matter. Rather, our moral judgments should be based on the effect it has on those on the receiving end of the words or actions.
This makes me uneasy. I don’t think that our moral judgments can be based only on how it affects those who are the perceived target. I think intent is indeed part of the moral equation.
Here’s a thought experiment.
Consider this ornament, which sits on a picture rail in my house. It was given to me by a relative.

It looks rather like the emblem of the Nazi party, but it is in fact a Hindu religious symbol.
But now consider (as I have many times) the effect this ornament might have on visitors to my house. If they are unfamiliar with Asian religious iconography, there is a non-negligible chance that they might take grave offence.
Have I been racist? No. Even by mistake? No. Should I apologise? Certainly not. Does intent matter? Definitely.
This would not even be a case where my visitor was ‘entitled to their opinion.’ If anyone took offence at this ornament then they would just be wrong. And I think this wrongness would persist even if they were a World War II veteran or a holocaust survivor.
As it happens, I take care to explain the ornament and it’s meaning to anyone who notices it, because I prefer that my guests spend their entire visit at ease. But if there were any kind of misunderstanding, there would be no moral failing or insensitivity on my part. In my house, the objects and pictures mean what I say they mean.
There may be contexts where the moral calculus is more complicated. It would be very weird to bring that ornament to a synagogue, for example. But what my thought experiment does show is that there are situations where the intent of the speaker, and the meaning that they assign to a symbol or a message, is crucial to its ‘actual,’ or morally relevant, meaning.
If that is certain in some cases, then I suggest there will be other cases where intent is, at least, relevant. It could be an exculpatory or mitigating factor.
And if we allow the meaning assumed by the one taking offence to trump the intent of the offender, then I think there is some obligation to explain why. It cannot be axiomatic.

1. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not believe that all of these examples were the transgressions that other people said they were. Their inclusion on the list reinforces the point I want to make.  UPDATE 3 FEB: For example, the context of the Riger Scruton ‘robots’ quote is entirely exculpatory, and the New Statesman apologised to him as a result. The Priti Patel dog-whistle was, to my mind, highly doubtful. I think the others were, as the Pedant General says in the comments below, “ill-judged” rather than deliberately racist.

3 Replies to “Offence and Intent”

  1. “Roger Scruton said that Chinese people were like robots,”
    I’m really surprised that you even put this anywhere near the other examples. All of the others had at least some overtone – it may not have been their intention to be racist, but the words were at the very least “ill-judged”.
    Roger Scruton’s comment, however, was deliberately stripped of context in order to confect an inference that was the exact opposite of his actual meaning.
    In this case, it was George Eaton who not only had offence, but crucially had intent too.

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