The crucial question, I suppose, is: does taking offence at something tend to empower or disempower us? Is it the latter, because it reveals us as mimsy and thin-skinned, too easily upset, childish and so on? Or the former, because one consequence of the (necessary, even heroic) efforts over the last century or so to drive out sexist, racist and homophobic discourse has resulted in a new social logic whereby people will go to significant efforts to respond, defuse, apologise for and try to future-avert 'any offence caused'. If the former, then it stands to reason that people will increasingly not only take offence but do it publicly.
We might want to say: but offence is a feeling! I can't help feeling. Which is fair enough, and I suppose true to a point. Except that these very efforts to delegitimize sexism, racism and homophobia have been in large part the effort to police people's feelings. A homophobe feels disgust at the thought of what gay people get up to, feels disgusted to have to share his workspace with a gay man and so on. (I stress feeling here since it seems to me axiomatic that such prejudice is not based on rationality or intellect: it is, on the contrary, irrational and stupid). If a person says 'my formerly whites only swimming pool is now open to people of all races and this makes me feel disgusted and upset' we are, I'd suggest, unlikely to go 'there there!' and try to soothe the individual's wounded sensibilities. We're more likely to say: oh get over yourself, you bigot. Your feelings are ridiculous. Indeed, the fact that you feel this way is likely to make me, and others, feel bad. I take personal offence at such offensive views! And so on.
The difficulty is a fundamental one. We can only challenge these (I should stress: insane, ridiculous) 'feelings' by transferring them into the realm of the intellect, by de-emoting them. Think how illogical it is to think that you will be, in some sense, contaminated by sharing swimming pool water with people whose skins are black and brown! The problem here, of course, is that because the bigot is not reacting on the level of logic he is unlikely to be persuaded to reconsider his bigotry by an appeal to logic.
These thoughts are prompted, in part, by the latest kerfuffle in my beloved genre. A great deal of effort has been expended by many people to try and make SF Conventions 'safe spaces'. Since such conventions used, in many cases, to be places in which men, variously creepy, weird and aggressive, scammed on, harassed, assaulted and raped women, this is a powerful and important move. A safe space ought, at the very least, to be a space in which a female fan could come without having to endure such behaviour from male fans. Ideally it ought to be a space in which a female fan need not even worry that such behaviour would ever happen; but (male) humanity being what it is, this actually shakes down into: a space in which complaints about harassment are taken seriously, acted on promptly and so on. I can't imagine anybody could object to, and surely most people would loudly applaud, such moves. The problem comes when 'harassment' is taken to include not only bodily advances and assaults but also anything that impinges feelings -- anything done, said, or implied that makes a women feel uncomfortable or unhappy. The kerfuffle to which I advert hinged not on the actual upset caused to any woman's feelings at the con (since the con has not happened yet, this would not have been possible). It was a purely subjunctive predicate, based on the idea that even the thought that there was a possibility that words might be spoken that might cause a woman to feel bad feelings was grounds enough to object to a person being invited to the con. This special subset of feelings (on the analogy of the stock market, we might call them 'Feelings Futures') throws my initial question into sharper relief. On the one hand: who could be so crass as to deny someone's feelings, or tell someone to shut the fuck up because of (eg) weeping as a result of such feelings? On the other hand: YOU WHAT?
I suspect the reason this latter case seems so tenuous to many is precisely that thinking about what we might or might not feel at some far-off future date strikes many of us as the sort of thing the intellect does, rather than something that proceeds instinctively from the emotions. If we wanted to be pedantic about it, we could say: the mind first rationally extrapolates or imagines a future state of affairs -- as it might be, 'Jonathan Ross saying something that hurts my feelings' -- and then that imagine future state has an affective reaction. Maybe the affective reaction is genuine; maybe the tears are real. But they are not tears wept as a result of anything that has happened, since their cause is still in the notional future.
‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]
‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.
There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.