Monday, September 13, 2010

What makes something "offensive"?

What makes something offensive or blasphemous? Is something offensive only if someone takes offense to it? Conversely, is everything that anyone find offensive actually offensive?

These questions are all basically asking the same thing: is blasphemy, offense, and even sacrilege subjective or objective? Most people contend they are subjective, but I disagree.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Blasphemy (Greek blaptein, "to injure", and pheme, "reputation") signifies etymologically gross irreverence towards any person or thing worthy of exalted esteem.

It does not mention a particular individual's feelings toward something. Therefore, a drunken sailor who uses the Lord's name in vain may not have any moral qualms about doing it. This action would nonetheless be considered offensive.

The reason I bring up this issue in the first place is that because most people now view blasphemy or offense as subjective, they reason that we should not limit exposure to such things or try to eliminate them because someone somewhere will be offended anyway.

I have seen things which are offensive and give me an immediate negative reaction. However, a friend might see the same thing and say "Well, I don't see what's so offensive about that. I don't really think it's blasphemous". They may even indicate that they were not disgusted by it, or that they can tolerate viewing such a thing.

They equate their internal reaction to a work of art, sound, or other experience with how offensive or blasphemous it is. In other words, if something does not make them upset or angry, it should be permitted.

This stance however quickly becomes a form of emotionalism, where moral decisions are made based on fleeting feelings. This is a very dangerous road to take. How we behave toward persons and objects must be determined by their inherent value, not by a visceral reaction. No different than a person's value does not depend on the amount of love the other feels for that person.

Determining what actually is offensive can be a challenging task. I have already explained why personal feelings cannot be used exclusively to determine if something is offensive or not. With a well-developed sense of justice, a person can correctly identify offensive or blasphemous things. However, without such a sense, many offensive things would not appear as such.

I believe something can be considered offensive or blasphemous when proper consideration is not given where it is due. Or when someone or something is portrayed in a way contrary to its inherent dignity.

It would be offensive to portray a clean person as filthy, or to portray a tall man as short. Blasphemy is basically something which is offensive that is directed toward God or something holy. Since God is all good, it would be blasphemy to say he is anything other than good. To call God bad would be blasphemous because it is contrary to truth.

How we show honor and respect to someone will vary according to culture and tradition. In the Western World, a hand shake is the norm. In Asian countries, a bow is customary. Although the specific practice to show respect changes, the need to do so does not. For instance, in an absolute sense Jesus merits our honour and praise. Although the way Jesus is honoured may vary by culture, our need to do so does not.

Blasphemy and offensiveness are actions or words which are contrary to the Truth, not emotional reactions.


  1. You can believe what you want, but make sure not to legislate from your faith please. Not all of us think blasphemy is anything to be concerned with, and many non-judeochristian people take horrific offense to your claim that your god is the one and only one. He is just a jealous and selfish god.

    Freedom of speech includes things you don't like.

  2. "Since God is all good, it would be blasphemy to say he is anything other than good."

    God is only good if you're too blind to see how evil he is. Wiping out entire peoples, asking for human sacrifices, and no mercy to the human condition are just a few things I find less than godly. How about his jealous nature? If human beings can get past jealousy, then doesn't that mean god is less perfect than humans?

  3. curiouserandcuriouser3:19 pm, April 18, 2012

    Yes, I´ve reached the same conclusion. And, if we remove the G-d question, then I completely agree with your post.

    We do need a rational basis for determining something´s truth value, though. We can all see I am a certain type of person (P) and to call me (-P) would be incorrect. We can´t do the same for G-d, though.