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In todays sensitive climate about [insert sensitive topic here], I often start wondering about who is to blame when one person offends another with their words or actions.

On one hand, it's obviously possible to be intentionally offensive:

A: You're stupid! Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberries!

Clearly, the blame here lies with the person throwing around the insults.

On the other hand, it's also possible to twist anything anyone says and be offended by it (at least I find it difficult to come up with something that can't be twisted):

A: You look beautiful today!

B: Oh, so I don't look beautiful on other days?! Are you saying I'm ugly on most days?! How dare you!

In such a case the blame then definitely lies on the offended person.

In my mind these are "two ends of a stick" - two extreme positions - but in everyday life the situations where someone takes offense at something are often more in the middle, where vast gray areas lie. One person might say something mildly insensitive, yet with no malicious intent, while another might get overly heated up about it. In fact, in my experience it's very rarely clearly cut.

I'm looking for some kind of criteria that would allow to unambiguously assign blame in such situations - or at least narrow the gray area as much as possible. And, of course, it's also possible that blame might be shared by both parties. But how to determine who is to blame and thus who should apologize to whom?

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    You mention malicious intent, but being thoughtless is also offensive.
    – D. Halsey
    Commented Mar 5 at 1:16
  • This seems to be about emotional accountability which is about psychology rather than philosophy. Who is accountable for how you feel? Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me Commented Mar 5 at 16:04
  • @IdiosyncraticSoul Yes, I'm not entirely certain that this is the right place to ask either. But so far it seems that people don't mind.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Mar 5 at 16:11
  • There is a personal philosophy that follows once a decision is made about emotional accountability. One who claims to be fully responsible for their own emotions will have a personal philosophy that will be different from one who looks to others for their emotions. So your question seems appropriate to me. But psychology is a driver. Commented Mar 5 at 16:17

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I doubt you'll find anything approaching an unambiguous criteria for who's to blame.

Language has a lot of nuance. Many statements have a few possible intended meanings and a few possible interpretations. Statements can mean different things based on context, and depending on the cultural background and past of the people involved.

People like to think that there's only 1 "correct" interpretation of any given statement (and usually that they personally know what that interpretation is), but the world often isn't that simple.

The most constructive and respectful approach is arguably to:

  • Accept that there's a lot of subjectivity involved in communication, and be open to the possibility that your interpretation of what someone said may be incorrect.

  • Try to interpret what someone said based on the most generous (reasonable) interpretation.

  • Ask for clarification if it's not fully clear what the "correct" interpretation is.

  • Try to speak clearly, clarify if someone misunderstood, and recognise that people might not always interpret what you say correctly (even if they have good intentions).

  • Accept a clarification someone gives (rather than just trying to prove that actually they're wrong and actually they meant what you think they meant).

  • Consider just moving on, rather than trying to blame the other person for interpreting something "incorrectly" or for "actually" having meant how you interpreted what they said (even after they clarified that they didn't mean that).

    If we're talking about a one-on-one interaction, for example, there is typically little to gain from trying to blame the other person - that just creates hostility. The relationship would probably be better off if you just accept that there was a misunderstanding and move on (and try to figure out how to avoid a similar misunderstand in future).

    If someone's saying something to a large audience, then there may be more to gain from pointing out how their words could be interpreted, regardless of what they "actually" meant.


Something I like to say: the best apology is to never do it again.

I generally don't care that much about who's to blame and who should apologise as much as I care about not having the same problem happen in future.

In that sense, if someone tells you that what you've said is harmful or hurtful, and you keep saying it... then you're probably to blame.

I'd say this is much more clearcut in terms of who's to blame.

Although, if, for example, someone says you using the word "the" is hurtful to them, you probably can't reasonably avoid using that, so it would not be reasonable to blame you for continuing to do so.

There is some element of whether they're reasonable for feeling hurt by that, but people can't just choose to not be hurt by something. I'd say the more important consideration is how easily you can avoid saying the hurtful thing.

* It's possible for a bad actor to say they're hurt by something to manipulate you or something. But it's hard to know someone's true intent, and I would rather focus on how reasonable their request is. Let's say someone asks for some small and reasonable accommodation, and you provide that. If they have good intentions, everyone wins. If they have bad intentions, they don't really gain much, and others see that you're considerate. If they keep asking for accommodations and they get less reasonable, you'd have a much stronger leg to stand on when you do eventually refuse to make further accommodations.

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    +1 "people can't just choose to not be hurt by something." Some people can't. But many people can. Vulnerable narcissists can't choose not to be hurt, but malignant narcissists simply disregard even the most legitimate of criticism. Many people live by "sticks and stones... but names will never hurt me". And sometimes, people should have their feelings hurt. Imagine a narcissistic world leader who believes they are entitled to impunity and absolute power. It's hard to imagine why the blame doesn't fall on their shoulders when they are offended, especially as an object of political satire.
    – J D
    Commented Mar 4 at 15:11
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    While I generally agree and this is certainly the way to behave around normal people... the problem with this approach is that it fails with bad actors. If you always apologize and try not to say the offensive thing again, you become easy to manipulate by someone who wants to manipulate you. All they need to say is that they're offended if you're not doing what they want and... But I don't know if this discussion isn't already going out of scope for philosophy.se.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Mar 4 at 21:36
  • @Vilx- If someone has bad intentions, and you provide them a few small and reasonable accommodations, they don't gain much, others see that you're considerate, and you'd have a much stronger leg to stand on when you do eventually refuse to make further accommodations. If you reject a request for a reasonable accommodation because you assume bad intent, that could likely lead to you being seen as the one in the wrong.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 4 at 22:29
  • @NotThatGuy True. It's a very delicate balance, hence I wanted some solid criteria based on which to make that call. Otherwise I find it hard to tell where "small and reasonable" becomes "large and unreasonable".
    – Vilx-
    Commented Mar 4 at 23:36
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You are looking for criteria that don't exist- that is why it is a 'vast grey area'. However, assuming you are not especially thick skinned, you might consider how you would have felt had the supposedly offensive statement been made to you rather than by you. If you conclude that you, too, would have found it upsetting, then an apology is definitely in order.

If you don't consider that what you said was offensive, and yet the person to whom you said it was offended, there could be several explanations. For instance:

They might simply have misheard you.

They might be in a foul mood in which they will react badly to almost anything.

They might be acting, to deceive, manipulate or upset you.

You might have 'touched a nerve'- ie, said something that most people would not react badly to, but which resonates in an upsetting way with that particular person.

You could argue that in all of those four cases the responsibility lies with the person taking the offence. That being the case, a practical rule might be to offer no apology by default, but instead ask the person why they have taken offence. If their answer seems reasonable, offer a suitable apology.

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You seem to be missing the bigger picture. The thing is humans are social animals. Being accepted within a group and having an equal or better standing within a group has historically been the difference between starvation and death or a prosperous life.

So making fun of someone in front of other people or giving them the impression that their life will take a turn for the negative is a threat. No matter how softly you wrap these words or how innocuous they might seem to a bystander. So yeah in a part of society where beauty is your capital and where the standard is silent appreciation a "you look beautiful TODAY" can be seen as a coded threat.

That is one part of the equation, the other part is how the recipient is situated. Like are they well off, prepared, relaxed, have a large circle of friends, are content with themselves and their situation? Then likely even a direct insult won't throw them off balance.

While on the opposite case, if people are under great stress, if they are in financial distress, if they are physically at their breaking point, if they have no emotional support, no hope for the future, if everything is placed on one card and so on, then any indication that something doesn't go as planned can let them explode. What you said in those contexts might not be the bomb it's just the trigger. The straw that breaks the camels back.

Now it probably feels unfair that this unleashes upon you in particular, you might not have been the person responsible for building up that gun powder and you might not even had the intention of saying anything mean at all.

Like idk let's say your boss rejects your vacation for a long planned trip that was intended to work on your dysfunctional marriage and a co-worker mocks you by saying how great the weather today is for taking a vacation, but you can't retaliate because they maybe are in an advanced position and could retaliate harder and then you meet an acquaintance of yours and they talk about the great weather just to make small talk and break the ice and they receive the full impetus of you hating your life.

Now is the question "who is to blame?" really a useful one? Like the acquaintance is the trigger so technically they are to blame..., but for what? Blame or guilt implies that they could have acted differently and there's little they could or should have done differently in that situation. Is the person exploding to blame? Well yeah, they exploded they escalated a situation that wasn't a threat...., but if you are under extreme pressure and if your nerves lay bare naked, that's not really a conscious decision either for which you can blame people. Usually you would eat or sleep and apologize and explain things the moment you become aware of having obliterated the wrong person and usually they do understand that as long as you weren't "shooting to kill", so having said things that can't be taken back even if they understand your situation. But suppose people won't let you eat and sleep and have a moment of contemplation but suppose you are kept under stress and forget about it because new things take priority then this can grow into deep seeded hatred on the other end.

So with respect to "guilt" extreme emotional and physical stress can also be exonerating circumstances as they couldn't have acted different even if they wanted. You can't expect rational responses in fucked up circumstances. So who's fault is it? The bosses fault for not granting the vacation? The co-workers fault for mocking? Societies fault for allowing people to reach their breaking point? Maybe actually yes.

But here's the thing while it's easy to see the explosion and maybe the trigger, the actual setup and who's responsible or not responsible is usually something that is invisible. Often enough the things that are emotionally challenging are the things that are embarrassing, humiliating or connected to trauma so rather than allowing a glimpse into that person's psyche, covering up those things is often what they resort to as damage control. And it's not really something irrational to do, to cover up your weak spots when you have the impression that you're under attack.

Now you might think that people today have less of a problem with being in a life or death situation when people insult them. But are they? Like probably most people do jobs that couldn't be done on their own. Like jobs that require consumers, customers, a supply chain and so on. So there are plenty of people in your community that you rely on and your reputation among them is likely key. Probably most higher up positions have at some point a rationalization that they aren't actually special, are massively overpaid, have no idea what smarter people below them are doing and fear their entire existence being pulled away under their feet if someone finds out about it. So despite being well off their entire existence is actually quite fragile, creating shark tank situations where there's a high level of competition not on a professional but on a personal level where people attack each other all the time and in turn understand everything as an attack.

One might also think that old people end up being more relaxed about life, because they've acquired some survivor bias in terms of all the situations that didn't kill them and how "the end of the world" wasn't as bad the last time it happened. But then again there are tons of angry old people who see their world changing massively and feel existentially threatened about it and hit upon every such instance of change whether that's proportional or not.

So I don't think that the question of "who is to blame?" is even a productive question in the first place.

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