Taking offense: three stories

Three stories (two of them recent) about taking offense: on spear phishing; Illegal Pete’s; and frape. First, some background on taking offense.

A non-linguistic example: taking offense at displays of affection by same-sex couples. There are three versions:

(I) personalized offense: I am offended by displays of affection by same-sex couples; I find such displays offensive.

(II) offense generalized to some group: Displays of affection by same-sex couples are offensive to Bible-believing Christians (or whatever),

(III) offense fully generalized: Displays of affection by same-sex couples are offensive, period.

Each level of offense brings with it an injunction against the offending behavior:

(I’) If you respect my feelings, opinions, etc., you will not engage in same-sex displays of affection.

(II’) You should not offend Bible-believing Christians by engaging in same-sex displays of affection.

(III’) You should not engage in same-sex displays of affection.

In each case I can respect an injunction or disregard it with impunity, depending on my assessment of the backing for your being offended. In this case, if I judge that your feelings, opinions, etc. stem from simple homophobia, or are the consequence of your belief that same-sex desire, identification as a homosexual, and/or gay sexual behavior are sinful — against God’s Law — well then as a gay man I will pay no attention to your injunctions (except perhaps to avoid you or to try to protect myself from you). I might even offend you intentionally, by taking part in a kiss-in, ostentatious hand-holding in restaurants, and so on.

On the other hand, if I am a coreligionist of yours, I will assent to (I)-(III) and be committed to (III’), and perhaps show contempt for those who engage in displays of same-sex affection, or even harass them.

More considerations. Discussions of (potentially) offensive language are frequently entangled with several other considerations:

( a ) non-literal (vs. literal) meaning: offense might be taken only at non-literal uses of some expression, while literal uses escape criticism; non-literal meaning is involved in all three of my examples

( b ) in line with ( a ), the literal meaning might be taken to be the original (and only true) meaning for the expression

( c ) the context of use, often quite local, may be crucial to the perception of offense

( d ) the vexed question of people’s intentions in using some expression often figure in discussions of its offensiveness

( e ) and the vexed question of changes in usage over time often figure in discussions of offensiveness

On to the cases.

Spear phishing. This story begins with a report from Geoff Nathan on ADS-L about a university IT department querying another mailing list about spear phishing as a “culturally insensitive” term, offensive to native Americans (some of whom had complained about it).

I was initially baffled at the claim of offensiveness (at level II), since people have been spearfishing, all over the world, for millennia (using either single shafts or tridents), and for about a hundred years, people have engaged in sport spearfishing, using powered spears (arguments have been advanced for sport spearfishing as an Olympic sport). Two possibilities: the objection arises in some very local context of use (consideration ( c )), or it arises only for the figurative use in spear phishing and not for the literal use of spearfishing (consideration ( a )), or of course both.

A digression on spear phishing. From Wikipedia:

Phishing is the attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money) by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.

Spear phishing: Phishing attempts directed at specific individuals or companies have been termed spear phishing. Attackers may gather personal information about their target to increase their probability of success. This technique is, by far, the most successful on the internet today, accounting for 91% of attacks.

Spear phishing is, to my mind, a nice bit of playful figurative language: phishing directed at a specific individual, just as spearfishing is directed at a single fish.

Back to the IT department’s problem with the expression spear phishing. The original query turns out to have came from David Stack, COO and Deputy CIO for University IT Services at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, on the EDUCAUSE CIO Constituent Group Listserv on November 11th:

We’d be interested in hearing from any institution that has encountered push-back over the use of the term “spear phishing” to describe targeted phishing attempts.

Native American spear fishing is a sensitive culture and political topic in Wisconsin and members of our faculty have asked us to therefore not use the term “spear phishing” in our security awareness communications.

If anyone else has had to negotiate around this ​issue, we’d appreciate hearing your approach.

So: very local context (Wisconsin, or at least parts of it), plus objection to a figurative use that plays on spearfishing (and consequently mocks the practice; the expression should be used only literally, and then with respect). Some background from Wikipedia:

The Wisconsin Walleye War became the name for late-20th century events of civil unrest in Wisconsin in protest of Ojibwe hunting and fishing rights. In a 1983 case, the tribes challenged state efforts to regulate their hunting and fishing off the reservations, based on their rights in the treaties of St. Peters (1837) and La Pointe (1842). On August 21, 1987, the U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that six Ojibwe (Chippewa) tribal governments had the right under these treaties for hunting and fishing throughout their former territory.

Civil unrest erupted in Wisconsin among sports fishermen opposed to tribal members spearfishing walleye during spawning season. Protests continued into 1991 against the Ojibwe exercising their treaty rights through the walleye spawning seasons. But actions on several fronts gradually led to more collaboration between the tribes and sport fishermen. The state commission reviewed the data and found that the tribes took such a small percentage of fish that they would not affect sport fishing. The tribes and sport fishermen began to work together to protect their common interest in the fishery and other natural resources, which were in danger of environmental degradation due to mining.

Apparently, this Ojibwe grievance from (parts of) Wisconsin in the 1980s has ballooned into the claim that spear phishing is offensive to native Americans in general, so that CIOs across the country — and perhaps many others — are now considering whether they should replace the term with, say, targeted phishing (as Wisconsin-Milwaukee has), so as to avoid giving offense. This strikes me as an overwrought response.

Illegal Pete’s. From the NYT on the 17th, “In Colorado, Calls to Change a Restaurant’s Name From ‘Illegal Pete’s’ ” [on-line; in print: “Invoking ‘I-Word’ Upsets Rights Groups: Owner is Proud of Restaurant’s Name, Illegal Pete’s, But Some Say It Offends”] by Julie Turkewitz:

Fort Collins, Colo. — The national debate over the use of the term “illegal immigrant,” which has become anathema to people who support relaxed immigration rules, has fixed on an unlikely lightning rod: the liberal-minded, pro-immigrant owner of a Mexican restaurant chain.

The proprietor, Pete Turner, 43, opened his first Illegal Pete’s restaurant nearly 20 years ago, and says that the name was inspired by the name of a bar in a novel and by his late father, also named Pete, who had a rebellious streak. At the time, said Mr. Turner, the word “illegal” held little of the political charge it does today. “I never intended it to be about undocumented immigrants,” Mr. Turner said. “Never. Not once.”

But in opening a new locale here — the chain’s seventh — Mr. Turner seemed to have stumbled on a political tripwire he had not known existed, drawing ire from local and national immigrant rights groups that say his use of the word in connection with a person’s name is derogatory and offensive. Furthermore, they said, they are alarmed that an additional Illegal Pete’s is slated to open in Tucson in August.

Some background on illegal alien vs. undocumented immigrant, from a polemic by Jose Antonia Vargas in Time on 9/21/12: “Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word Illegal. It’s inflammatory, imprecise and, most of all, inaccurate. So why does everyone — from Chuck Schumer to Mitt Romney — use it?”:

What part of “illegal” don’t you understand? Add that to the list of questions I am repeatedly asked since publicly disclosing my undocumented-immigrant status in the summer of 2011. Calling undocumented people “illegal immigrants” — or worse, “illegal aliens,” as Mitt Romney did in front of a largely Latino audience last week — has become such standard practice for politicians and the media, from Bill O’Reilly to the New York Times, that people of all political persuasions do not think twice about doing it too.

But describing an immigrant as illegal is legally inaccurate. Being in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one. … In a country that believes in due process of the law, calling an immigrant illegal is akin to calling a defendant awaiting trial a criminal. The term illegal is also imprecise. For many undocumented people — there are 11 million in the U.S. and most have immediate family members who are American citizens, either by birth or naturalization — their immigration status is fluid and, depending on individual circumstances, can be adjusted.

When journalists, who are supposed to seek neutrality and fairness, use the term, they are politicizing an already political issue. (How can using illegal immigrant be considered neutral, for example, when Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged using the term in a 2005 memo to tie undocumented people with criminality?) And the term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe. Think of it this way: In what other contexts do we call someone illegal? If someone is driving a car at 14, we say “underage driver,” not “illegal driver.” If someone is driving under the influence, we call them a “drunk driver,” not an “illegal driver.”

The position here suggests level II offense: illegal used with reference to a person is offensive to undocumented immigrants (with a further claim of bad intentions on the part of those who use the adjective this way).

More from the NYT story, introducing the consideration of language change (illegal didn’t use to be offensive, but now it’s a racial slur), and looks at the question of intention (Pete Turner intended no offense, but his words are nevertheless intrinsically offensive):

“The crux of it is that it’s become a racial slur,” said Cheryl Distaso, 54, one of a group of local residents who are calling on the owner to change the name. Ms. Distaso said she believed that Mr. Turner had not mean to offend anyone when he opened Illegal Pete’s in 1995. “But the impact of that word in this day and this town is different,” she said, “and ultimately it’s the impact of our actions that we’re responsible for.”

The protesters have the support of Race Forward, a national group that began a campaign in 2010 to eliminate the use of the word “illegal” as an adjective for people, particularly in the news media. Race Forward has argued that the term “illegal immigrant” is a tactical term promoted by anti-immigration groups starting in the mid-2000s. The epithet, the group said, is dehumanizing, but quickly moved into the mainstream.

… Mr. Turner said he gave a name change real consideration. “I had to check myself,” he said, “and to be honest, I did. I have integrity, and when I said I’d listen, I did.”

In early November, though, he announced in a lengthy letter on the restaurant’s website that he had heard the concerns of the opponents, but that their interpretation of the name did not change his own view of it. “The name to me was unique and countercultural,” he wrote, “which I appreciated as a younger man. Still do. It’s typically the countercultural places in our society that are the most accepting of individuals from all different walks of life.”

So we have two vexed questions here: change in usage over time (consideration ( e )) and the intentions of the user (consideration ( d )). Through all of this, the objectors insist that the context of use (consideration ( c )) is inconsequential, that the word now has only one use, regardless of context, so that (when used with reference to a person) it’s always and everywhere offensive to undocumented immigrants. Pete Turner offers an alternative, in which there is more than one way to use the word, depending on context (and intention) — an alternative that I am very sympathetic with, but I fear that it will carry no weight; apparently, for many people, the word (referring to a person) has become permanently and irrevocably poisoned.

frape ‘Facebook rape’. Here I return to a usage I posted about on 8/31/13. From that posting:

Frape incorporates a rape metaphor, and many have objected to the metaphor in general. A characteristic posting, by Chloe Angyal on HuffPo (“More Than Words: The Rape Metaphor” of 1/11/10): … “using the word to describe a garden variety bad experience trivializes the very real experience of rape victims.”

… it would be hard to tolerate the other violent and sexual metaphors while barring only the rape metaphor. The other violent metaphors glorify violence, and the other sexual metaphors incorporate negative views of sex, and you might reasonably object to them on those grounds, but I can’t see purging these metaphors from language use. In addition, many of these metaphors have become conventionalized to one degree or another, so that the literal senses of the lexical items are at least muted, if not entirely below the level of consciousness.

So you can agree that our culture trivializes rape but still not see every use of the word rape as literal (and trivializing of the experience of being raped).

Then came Tim Pierce’s comment on 12/28/13, in reply to Steven Levine, who first brought up the word as something had learned from young Irish friends, who used it jocularly and without any intention to offend:

This thread has been bothering me for months, ever since I first read it. Steven, both you and Arnold are people who I respect a great deal and consider among the most thoughtful people I know. But when I look at this conversation I see a woman objecting to using the word “rape” — or a word derived directly from it — in a frivolous or casual way, and two men telling her to sit down and shut up. None of this makes sense to me.

Can either of you give me more context for understanding what this is about?

I doubt that I can add much to this discussion beyond what I said in my posting, where I rejected the claim that rape has only one acceptable meaning, its literal (true, original) one; all other uses are trivializations of this deadly serious meaning and so are offensive, to rape victims or to women in general (level II)) or perhaps just offensive, period (level (III)).

You might not like violent or aggressive metaphors, in which case you’re welcome to avoid them, insofar as you can. (You might be surprised to discover just how common they are; consider, for example, the verbs bully and attack.) But metaphorical rape deserves no special treatment; it’s no worse than the rest, and the rest are all over the place.

And now, from NOAD2 on rape:

noun  1 the crime, typically committed by a man, of forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with him without their consent and against their will, esp. by the threat or use of violence against them: he denied two charges of attempted rape | he had committed at least two rapes.

literary the abduction of a woman, esp. for the purpose of having sexual intercourse with her: the Rape of the Sabine Women

2 the wanton destruction or spoiling of a place or area: the rape of the Russian countryside.

verb [with obj.]  1 (of a man) force (another person) to have sexual intercourse with him without their consent and against their will, esp. by the threat or use of violence against them: the woman was raped at knifepoint.

2 spoil or destroy (a place): the timber industry is raping the land.

The surprise here is the etymology:

ORIGIN late Middle English (originally denoting violent seizure of property, later carrying off a woman by force): from Anglo-Norman French rap (noun), raper (verb), from Latin rapere ‘seize.’

That is, the “original” meaning involves violent action (sexual verbs often have their origin in verbs of violent action), and the restriction to sexual violence comes later; and after that, the conventionalized metaphorical extension to despoiling and destruction.

4 Responses to “Taking offense: three stories”

  1. davidmstack Says:

    What is a bit hard to understand in the “spear phishing” case at my institution is that it is located in a city of almost 600,000 people in an urban metropolitan area of approximately 1.5M people. There are other campuses that are part of the same university system in Wisconsin that are in more rural areas with copious lakes where, one would suspect, that emotions surrounding the spear fishing controversy run stronger. Yet, no objections to the use of the term “spear phishing” have come to light at those campuses. At least none that I’m aware of.

  2. Geoffrey Nathan Says:

    A similar case seems to be occurring with the word ‘hit’, at least according to UC Davis (as reported by the libertarian website Hit and Run [sic]:


    Although the case is very slightly more plausible, there are hundreds of uses of ‘hit’ (___ parade, Google ___, etc.) that do not implicate violence.

    And, of course there’s the euphemism ‘tap’, used famously in the Zipcar commercial:


  3. chryss Says:

    I don’t think we disagree on much even though the following might sound as if I do. In the manymany conversations or controversies I’ve been participating in lately, I’ve found the term or category of “offensive” less and less useful. Typically, the topic is some action or statement or other that I consider racist or sexist or otherwise exclusionary or problematic in some way that touches on the basis on which people judge others, and pretty much invariably I get asked by a relatively well-meaning whether I find it offensive. (Less well-meaning interlocutors may affirm that whoever finds it offensive is driven by ideology, or crazy, or craven, or stupid. Or may baldly state that it is not offensive.)

    The problem here is: I don’t believe there is a right not to be offended. I also rarely experience the emotion of offense (or its big brother, outrage), though occasionally I do. But this mere experience can’t be a good grounding for my judgement: My mere presence offends some people, and I have no doubt their feelings are just as injured as mine are in the first case. I’m also convinced convinced that some of the more traditional and conservative faculty members at my institution feel sincerely that, say, giving women, ethnic minority candidates or disabled people a second look in an application process, or taking child care arrangements into account when planning seminar schedules, diminishes the sanctity of our scientific enterprises and in a real sense offends their sensibility.

    So your third category, of the absolute quality of being offensive makes no sense to me at all. There’s at least always a context. The second I shy back from because it sounds a bit too much of injecting my judgement into other people, who after all are free to judge how they please. The first is real, but doesn’t hit the reason of a negative judgement. I just don’t see how we can label something o…bjectionable without a reference to a set of ethical principles or moral values that is the foundation of this judgement. The problem is that it’s often implicit and that people believe they agree more about those principles than they actually do.

    The terms I actually use therefore relate to those principles. To finish up an overly long comment, some examples.

    Spear-fishing is practiced here, too, both as personal-use fishery with a permit (probably predominantly white people) as well as under rural subsistence (probably predominantly Alaska Natives) rules. I just about barely could imagine that in the context of a hot controversy (in which if I understand it correctly, mostly non-Native sport fishers were bullying subsistence-fishing Natives, without having facts on their side to boot), it might be too tempting for asshats to use the spear-phishing word with a derogatory reference. It’s not very likely, years after, though, and the actual metaphor is clear and clean. If the controversy etc. were structured a little differently, though, I could imagine just temporarily using a different term. It’s not as if they’re super expensive.

    There was a bit of a distributed debate recently about whether rape jokes are ever acceptable. I know of a number of what I consider excellent rape jokes (the twisted logic of rape apologists is invariable the butt of these jokes, and they invariably come from comedians with a known strong public stance in support of those who have to deal with this type of aggression, that is, people of trust), so my first-approximation is, yes, they can be. And yet, I don’t think I would make one. At least not within earshot of people whose potential history with rape I don’t know, and/or who have no reason to trust me. (Context matters!) Given that for a good number of women rape is a very real threat if they just socialize normally among their peers, I don’t want to distress anyone by chance. Murder, on the other hand, even though (IMHO) a more serious crime than rape, is a lot farther removed from the reality of how I and people I’m in contact with normally live our lives, so “oh, someone should put a bullet through your head” is a more suitable (though not pretty… let’s say less unsuitable) playful put-down than “oh, go get raped”. Would I use it among younsters from a high school that counts murdered students in dozens/year? Of course not. (I do observe that utterances like “I never got so much raped as in this exam” are not uncommon among early 20s female students, and don’t know what to think of it. They’re objectively in much more danger of actually being raped than I am. Reclaiming a fear? Or just callousness? Anyway, the problem is clearly not that rape can’t have figurative senses — it clearly does — but that the figurative sense can’t help evoking an unresolved and acute misogynistic reality.

    Or it could be less acute but just historically weighty. No German politician could, for example, use “send to the gas chamber” as a successful metaphor. Not in the primary sense of eliminating something pervasive and noxious, not in the secondary sense where the gas-chamber-sender is the villain.

    Just yesterday I was in an argument on whether calling a scientific problem or engineering task sexy is offensive; jectionable; whatever. Detached from a context, to me, it isn’t. I would use it with Melinda. Enticing, attractive, arousing (of my interest or curiosity!) are all for me pretty clean, and connoted with respect and joy. However, I’m afraid that way too many straight male scientists and engineer’s concept of “sexy” would be accompanied with a leer towards the nearest female co-worker’s boobs. Gender relations in the male-dominated workplace unfortunately haven’t worked their way through the legacy predatory attitudes of men towards subservient women. So, for me, “sexy” in science is currently skunked. (I’m using the term slightly differently than the accepted way.)

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