Not taking offense when offered

One thing I've found interesting about the incident of the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at GWB recently is the contrast between the reaction from some of the Arab world, where as I understand it shoeing is a strong insult, and Bush's reaction, as described in an AP article by Qassim Abdul-Zahra:

"The president harbors no hard feelings about it, and the Iraqis have a process that they'll follow," [White House press secretary Dana] Perino said. "But he did urge them not to overreact, because he was not bothered by the incident, although it's not appropriate for people to throw shoes at a press conference, at any leader."

We hear all the time about people taking offense at things that weren't intended to give offense. But what about the other way around? What if I issue an insult to you that I consider to be one of the worst possible things I could say about you, but in your culture it's not much of an insult so you shrug it off? (I've seen a statement that shoeing is not actually such a mortal insult; I don't actually know for sure how it's perceived. But regardless, I'm more interested in the general question, about culture-specific insults in general, than in this particular incident.)

To put it another way: if I hear your culture-specific insult of me, but I don't feel insulted, am I disrespecting your culture?

Certainly I'm not saying that Bush should have taken the insult in the spirit in which it was intended. In general, I think not being bothered by insults is a good thing. (No, this is not an invitation to insult me. Although I might wish otherwise, in fact I am bothered by insults.)

But although I liked Bush's response (via Perino), it also struck me as a little oddly dismissive, which led me to ponder the more general question. So I'm curious what y'all think about this general question.

I've been pretty out of touch with the blogosphere lately, so if others have been blogging about this, feel free to point me to such discussions.

6 Responses to “Not taking offense when offered”

  1. Cat Sitting Still

    I don’t know that not taking offense is disrespectful–it simply means you haven’t internalized the culture to the point of reacting on an unconscious level to its cultural signals.

    But it is kind of a bemusement–makes me wonder what things I only find insulting because of *my* culture?

    Plus the whole shoe thing makes me think about the ramifications of taking one’s shoes off in the house or failing to do so. If a shoe is “ritually unclean” / “ritually hostile” then wearing shoes into a shoeless house isn’t just dirtying the floor, it could be dirtying the host-guest relationship; disrespecting the house and by extension the family that lives there.

    Or something.

  2. Debbie N.

    You know, I don’t give one damn about whether or not Bush is offended when his goons have locked the man up and are reportedly torturing him. It’s easy to be cool when you have monsters to do your work for you.

    The culture-specific questions are interesting. But the torture is (for me) a bigger question.

  3. Jay Hartman

    Whatever may be circulating on the internet, I highly doubt that the gentleman who hurled the shoes is being tortured. Bush may be the worst president we’ve had–or at least in the bottom five–but he is, after all, the guy who just said, “welcome to my hanging” at is potrait unveiling, and who said something a few years back about a crowd enthusiastically waving at him…”but too bad they were all waving a one-finger salute.” Not his exact words, but you get the idea. Given the foregoing, it’s no surprise that the two people I know who know Bush personally say that despite everything, the man has a sense a humor…and therefore my guess is that Bush got a private laugh out of the great shoe incident of 2008, and would not have had “his goons lock the man up and torture him.”

    On a tangential but more practical note, I was just reminded that wearing shoes inside can be a real cause of poor indoor air quality and not healthly for anyone in the house…but especially unhealthy for kids and toddlers who play on the floor of the house. Below is a link to a source on this…and how could you possibly go wrong trusting a source called “”?

  4. Tacithydra

    To put it another way: if I hear your culture-specific insult of me, but I don’t feel insulted, am I disrespecting your culture?

    I feel like this is similar to trying to get a guy to understand sexism by calling him the nasty words that women are often called. It’s easier for him to dismiss those words, because he doesn’t actually have to exist in a world where he’s at the wrong end of that privilege stick. He’s not in the same ‘culture’, so to speak, so the insults that work very effectively against women are far less effective against him.

    I feel like this is a similar situation.

  5. Jed

    Cat: Yeah, “disrespecting” probably isn’t quite the word I wanted. But yeah, makes me wonder what things I only find insulting because of *my* culture?–good question. And the question about taking off shoes brings up the other half of this issue: if I’m not really clued in to what things give offense in a culture, I might end up giving offense without intending to. Though I think much of the time people are fairly forgiving of accidental offense-due-to-ignorance.

    Debbie: I think my discussion of the specific incident may’ve been counterproductive, ’cause that made it sound like that was my main focus here. Sorry about that–I probably should’ve picked some other example to talk about; but this one was what brought the questions to mind, so that’s where I started. But my intent was to look at the general issue rather than this particular incident; I suspect it happens frequently, in the world in general, that someone attempts to insult someone else, but the recipient is oblivious to the cultural significance of the intended insult.

    (Side note: Of course, sometimes people do take offense based only on the perception that offense was meant. Kids sometimes play with this, by saying unknown-to-the-recipient words in an offensive or aggressive tone. If a kid snarls “You mensch” at some other kid, the other kid may start a fight because of the tone, without knowing what the specific word means.)

    Jay: I would say not so much “circulating on the internet” as reported in the New York Times (and elsewhere). So far, what we’ve got (as far as I’ve heard) is that Muntader al-Zaidi’s brother visited him in jail and has subsequently said that Zaidi was being tortured in jail. We don’t know whether the brother was telling the truth or not. But yeah, even if there was torture, the articles I’ve seen haven’t indicated that the brother thinks that Bush ordered the torture, or even that Americans performed it.

    (There are many complicated further arguments that could be made–if there was torture, should Bush be held responsible even if he didn’t order it? and so on–but we have so little information that I would just as soon not turn these comments into an argument about who did what.)

    Interesting re taking off shoes; thanks for the link.

    Tacithydra: Yes! Great analogy–that’s very much the kind of thing I was stumbling toward, without quite being able to figure out where I was going. Thank you!

    So maybe I don’t mean so much “disrespecting.” And on further thought, I don’t think I really mean that people should take offense when offense is meant; I think maybe what I’m aiming for is that it’s a good idea to try to understand where the intended offender was coming from–what they meant, and why they said or did whatever it was. If I’m not offended, does that mean I’m missing something essential about what’s being said? Can I put myself temporarily in the perspective of someone who would be offended, to get a sense of what’s going on in this situation that I might be missing? If someone issued a serious insult toward me, maybe it behooves me to consider it to be serious commentary/feedback even if I decline to actually be offended or react as if offended.

    Or maybe not. I’m still kind of feeling my way here. And all this is intended as kind of vague philosophical musing; I don’t have a specific point or argument I’m trying to make here.

  6. Anonymous

    re torture: well, didn’t he just say “..the Iraqis have a process that they’ll follow.”

    When it happened, I knew the cultural context, and his shrug and comment about it being “a size 10” just struck me as him once again being publicly clueless. He didn’t have to be deeply personally offended, but I do think ignoring the level of offensiveness intended does ignore/belittle the degree to which the attacker was upset. Puts me in mind of the scene in Tale of Two Cities when the rich guy tosses a coin to the father of the baby just run over by his coach, you know?

    Some of my favorite responses: One person said history will remember the man who hit Bush with a shoe — the fact that the president ducked will, this person opined, not be remembered.

    And, of course, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me had some wonderful comments, such as “Why did Bush stand back up, so the guy could get a second shot in? Well, there simply wasn’t enough time for him to do the math.”


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