Every electronic forum, I think, will eventually get into a discussion or flamewar about offensiveness.  And often people will start to focus on the difference between giving offense and taking offense.  And someone, probably on the “don’t be such a baby” side, will start claiming that the problem is with the people who choose to take offense.  After all, if no one gets offended, there is no offense, right?

(I’ve seen this several times, but the immediate cause for thought is the controversy summarized and reprised here on Metafilter.)

There’s a certain plausibility to this idea. but I think it’s an artifact of English.  For one thing, the metaphor of giving and taking suggests equivalence; it feels like an exchange where, at the least, both parties are responsible.  But see what happens when you replace the concept of giving offense with that of being hostile.  The exact same behaviors may be referred to, but since there’s no exchange metaphor, it’s much clearer that one may be hostile no matter what behavior or reaction is triggered, or indeed without any specific other party at all.  (The implication of hostility is also– properly, I think– that it’s an attribute of the person speaking or writing, not so much of the words used.  One can’t be accidentally hostile.)

Due to this quirk of English, if you want a civil forum, I think it’s better to say don’t be hostile rather than don’t be offensive.

(There’s much more to say about the dynamics here– for instance, the “don’t be a baby” folks generally turn into big babies themselves once they’re criticized.  But for now I just wanted to focus on the linguistic aspect.)

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