Voltaire has become a kind of mascot for the free-speech side of this debate, and his encounter with the Duc fits the role perfectly. On this view, although Voltaire is outspoken and abrasive, he is ultimately on the side of reason and liberty. Those who take offence are like the Duc: they tyrannically silence others to protect their own sensitivities. The moral of the story is that we must not succumb to the temptation of censoring others, even if their speech is uncomfortable or painful to hear. After all, they are ‘mere words’.
This argument is premised on a particular conception of what offence is all about. What makes something offensive is that it presents an unwelcome viewpoint that creates discomfort, bruises egos, and hurts feelings. When people take offence, they are trying to silence those who offend them. Call this concept of offence offence-as-hurt.
The main theoretical counter to this view is to argue that offence is not about ‘hurt feelings’, but about real harm. A large body of cross-disciplinary research shows that pervasive messages of exclusion or inferiority directed at disadvantaged or vulnerable groups can cause emotional distress and psychological damage. Words wound, and the wounds are no less real for not being physical. This view has frequently been used to argue for legal prohibitions on hate speech. Call this view offence-as-harm.
There is a third possibility that is not often discussed but which, I will argue, does a better job of accounting for many contemporary conflicts over offence. Neither Voltaire nor the Duc would have seen their conflict as a matter of ‘offence’, properly speaking. In 18th-century France, ‘to take offence’ had a very specific meaning: to challenge another man to a duel. In duelling cultures, the challenge was nothing more than a gentlemanly convention for taking offence.To offend meant to insult or to disrespect, not to hurt one’s feelings. And to take offence was to reply to an insult by demanding a show of respect. I call this third alternative offence-as-insult.
The duel of honour was a violent practice deeply associated with elitism and is therefore repugnant to today’s moral sensibilities. That said, focusing too much on the differences between offence in the two historical contexts can blind us to important parallels. If the duel seems exotic, the underlying norm of equal respect that was at the heart of honour should be more familiar. The first part of this essay will explain how the duel was used to defend equal status for all gentlemen. The second will show how the same basic concept of offence-as-insult that underlies duelling can make more sense of today’s controversies over offensive speech than either offence-as-hurt or offence-as-harm.(...)The concept of honour is the key to understanding such quarrels. Honour was a kind of status, entitling those who possessed it to respectful treatment from others. It was a general social status that, unlike modern legal status, applied across contexts, extending into every aspect of social life. It entitled the gentleman to respectful treatment in the drawing room and on the street, as much as in the courts. As long as this idea of honour held sway, civility manuals explaining the proper behaviour, in any context, towards one’s inferiors and one’s equals were enormously popular.
Clifton Mark, What is offensive?