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Excerpts: That’s Offensive!

That’s Offensive!
Criticism, Identity, Respect

by Stefan Collini

Criticism offends. Criticism, in the ordinary colloquial sense of ‘fault-finding’, seems almost bound to cause hackles to rise and umbrage to be taken, at least on the part of the person or persons criticized. Resentment figures quite largely in the reaction to being criticized, even where—sometimes especially where—there is some acknowledgement of the justice of the criticism. But resentment may also be felt by a third party, made uneasy by a display of judgemental authority and left feeling suspicious of its legitimacy or standing: ‘What right have you got to . . .?’

At the heart of the matter is the issue of ‘resentment’, especially questions about its sources and its legitimacy. The standard definition of resentment is ‘a strong feeling of ill-will or anger against the author or authors of a wrong or affront’. [...] people often feel resentment, in just this sense, in the face of criticism. One ground of such resentment may be the conviction that the criticism in question is simply not true. But the most interesting case is where we, when we’re the target of criticism, recognize, at some level, the truth of the criticism and still feel resentful—indeed, feel resentful precisely because we recognize the truth of the criticism. We may, of course, try to justify or buttress our feelings by suggesting that it is unnecessary or inappropriate for the criticism to be made, against us, now. And more interesting still is resentment against its being made by them, perhaps by them of all people. ‘What right have they got,’ even if what they say is true?

Resentment is, among other things, a cry of pain. It often expresses some form of powerlessness: we resent something precisely because, though we don’t like it, there’s not much we can do about it. Resentment is characteristically something that builds up: finding no immediate expression in repressive action, it accumulates and turns rancid. In some cases, this experience can result simply from being on the receiving end of good arguments. Such arguments tell us that we are in some way falling short or in the wrong, and what makes them doubly enraging is that we see, or half-see, that they are right. But we also feel, at the same time, that in not just meekly acknowledging their truth we are somehow in the right, too, because we are standing up for our autonomy. As the philosopher Bernard Williams observed, not long ago, ‘the power of persuasion, however benignly or rationally exercised, is still a species of power.’ What we rightly call the ‘force of reason’ is experienced as a force, and an alien one when it is against us. We are resistant to it, yet we also feel intellectually cornered by it. This state of feeling is fertile breeding ground for rancours

But this is where we start to touch on some of the most intriguing aspects of the relations between criticism and offence. For although we all constantly engage in such descriptions, there is something about characterizing or ‘placing’ people in this way that can seem to diminish them. It may seem to suggest that in possessing the itemized qualities they lack others and so are to be found further down the scale of human limitations than any of us may like to think of ourselves as being. And it can suggest that ones doing the characterizing take themselves to be regarding these limitations from a higher vantage point—indeed, that is it only because of this relative advantage in elevation that the characteristics can be so clearly discerned and briskly described. The very confidence with which the characterizations are proposed—whether they are thought to be accurate or inaccurate in themselves—may begin to engender resistance, both in those so described and in others witnessing or reading the descriptions. How, it may be asked, can such categorical critical judgements coexist with the fundamental obligation to show others equal respect?

Perhaps we should start by reversing that question and asking: how does respect exist except in the company of critical judgement?

Read The Guardian and The New Republic‘s review of the book.


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