Due to the comments on my blog post about Divisive Behavior  I’ve been considering the issue of terms of abuse of minority groups – a topic of which racial abuse is only one aspect.
It seems that there are many discussions about which terms are offensive and when they are offensive, most of which are very misguided. Solving this problem would be an almost impossible task, but I have some ideas which may help to improve the situation. I would appreciate any pointers to better ideas in comments or in blog posts that are inspired by this one.
One common mistake seems to be the idea that there are global objective criteria by which a statement can be proven to not be offensive. In any language that is constantly evolving (IE any language that’s not dead) this seems impossible. It is particularly difficult with a language like English which is widely used in different countries and cultures. If a member of a minority group claims that you have just offended them then it seems most reasonable to have the default assumption be that you have said or done something which is actually offensive. In such a situation an immediate apology for the misunderstanding should be well accepted, but a debate about who’s cultural standards should be used for determining what is offensive probably won’t get a positive reception.
It seems extremely difficult (if not impossible) for a member of the majority group to properly understand what members of a minority group experience. So therefore attempts to understand why certain terms are offensive are likely to be doomed to failure. Sometimes if a certain word is used and then a group of people immediately get really angry you just have to accept the fact that it’s not a good word to use. One common example of this is words that are associated with violence – if someone associates a particular term with a threat of serious injury or death then you won’t be able to convince them that it’s not a big deal, but there are more subtle things of a similar nature.
It’s worth trying to understand people and these things can be productively discussed between friends. But a discussion of such things is not viable during the course of a debate. If involved in a debate with someone you really dislike it doesn’t seem like a good strategy to start a meta-discussion about whether they should regard one of your statements as being unreasonably offensive (regarding minority group status) as opposed to the level of offense that is acceptable in debate (something like “that’s the most ridiculous argument I’ve ever heard” may offend the recipient but is not inherently unreasonable).
Words tend to have multiple meanings. Claiming that your intent was significantly different from the way your message was interpreted probably isn’t going to work well unless accompanied by an apology. Even “I’m sorry you were offended” (which is not the best apology) will probably do.
Finally I’m sure that anyone who does Google searches dating back to 2005 (as an arbitrary year that references my previous post) can find examples of me doing things that go against some of these suggestions. I’ve learned things since then, it’s an ongoing process.