If contemporary politics is anything, it is made of the offensive and the offended. Not only are our opponents’ views offensive to each of us, there is offensive debate concerning offense itself!
Offense is part of the ordinary run of human life—we will all encounter offensive ideas, arguments, and systems of thought. Contemporary political discussions only elevate a generically human need to handle offenses in a right way. We call this intellectual gentleness—gentleness in giving and taking offense, intellectual because it occurs in the context of our pursuit of truth. Although much could be said about intellectual gentleness, here we will focus on how the intellectually gentle person ought to respond when others seek to offend.
In their book Intellectual Virtues, Roberts and Wood articulate the core of intellectual gentleness best:
Gentleness is a disposition to listen to offensive language without ceasing to ‘hear’ the arguments it expresses…[an] inclination not to be too defensive when you realize you were being verbally assaulted or when somebody is saying something that is ideologically repugnant to you.
In all of the forthcoming examples, the intellectually gentle person demonstrates a willingness to look to the content of ideas rather than their mode, tone, or malicious intent. Love of knowledge is clearly deeply supportive of intellectual gentleness. Because of a deep desire for the goods of the intellectual life, the intellectually gentle person will hone in on those goods as they regard an idea rather than focusing on taking offense at an idea.
Now, offenses may be intentional or unintentional. Suppose a book on the truth of Christianity argues for the conclusion that Christianity is inherently hateful and harmful. Perhaps the author is gentle herself and meant no offense by it, but merely was in pursuit of truth.
Depending on the circumstance, noting offense may be called for. Motivated by love of neighbor, an intellectually gentle person will use practical wisdom to determine whether a particular situation calls for noting the offense to the offender or not. And if it does, they will only note it gently, attempting to help the offender be more gentle themselves.
But oftentimes, offense is very intentional. The intellectually gentle person can notice or not notice these offenses. They will choose whether to take offense or not take offense. The intellectually gentle person is wise, knowing which situation calls for which response.
In some cases, the intellectually gentle person neither notices nor takes offense at an intentional jab at them or their ideas. The intellectually gentle person will not respond and hopefully won’t even notice at some level of trivial offense laced into a concept: “Your physiognomy gives away your argument!” or “You clearly haven’t read any source material!” The intellectually gentle person simply cares more about truth and reasoning than being respected in every possible way and, as such, does not even notice these pathetic offenses.
Other cases may call for noticing the offense but not taking the offense. Perhaps you are a Presbyterian and your friend is a staunch Southern Baptist who every now and again makes disapproving jokes about Presbyterians (infant baptism and so forth). Here, the intellectually gentle Presbyterian will note the offense—it stares him right in the face. But perhaps the best course of action is to refuse to take offense here in the effort to retain your friendship and not take yourself too seriously. This will depend on how scathing the jokes are, how repeated they are, etc. But we can imagine the intellectually gentle person recognizing the offense and yet virtuously choosing to move forward.
Some offenses are both noticed and deeply offensive to the intellectually gentle person, however. Loving one’s neighbor often means not wanting one’s neighbor to be a disrespectful and ungentle person. Additionally, in humility the intellectually gentle have a healthy sense of self-worth, knowing they should be treated gently.
Imagine that in class an atheist just scathes you for believing God exists, tearing you a new one over the idiocy of being a theist. Again, it may be best to let this, too, pass. Jesus, the supremely gentle person (intellectually and otherwise), says “whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also….” (Matthew 5:39.)
But sometimes it is best to call out the offender and note that the offense was real and cruel—not giving harshness for harshness, but helping the other person to repent of the offense.
One of the clearest instances in this author’s life of intellectual gentleness is that of a fellow student—whose gentleness is consistently displayed to me and others. He is a just war theorist, classical theist, and a Roman Catholic, while I am of a pacifistic, freewill theist, and Anabaptist persuasion.
My beliefs are deeply offensive to his beliefs, and we have encountered interlocutors with beliefs offensive to us both. Yet he frequently refuses to note offense when he could. When he does, it is done gently—from a humble sense of self-worth and desire for the other to be gentle and loving. Our lives and our world needs more men like him.
We need more men like Christ, who ultimately exhibited “turning the other cheek” upon the cross, spreading his arms wide to those who crucified him, begging forgiveness for those who mocked and mangled him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”