Time to Retire the Word “Offended”

Julian Bleach as Ariel and Patrick Stewart as Prospero in The Tempest at the Novello Theatre in London, 2007. Photo by Alastair Muir. The Tempest has come under fire in certain circles for its implied criticisms of colonialism and racism.

Julian Bleach as Ariel and Patrick Stewart as Prospero in The Tempest at the Novello Theatre in London, 2007. Photo by Alastair Muir. The Tempest has come under fire in certain circles for its implied criticisms of colonialism and racism.

There’s almost constant talk online about what’s “offensive,” or who’s “offended,” and it’s high time we retired this word.

“Offend” means “to annoy, upset, or anger.”  Usually people use it to mean, “This has made me personally uncomfortable.” People use “offended” when they hear someone say “Jesus Timberlake Christ,” see part of a boob on TV, or find out their kids read The Tempest or Harry Potter. In other words, they’re complaining that something they’ve encountered opposes their personal tastes and beliefs. They are having a personal experience that they find upsetting. “Offended” does not extend beyond that– it’s entirely personal. It’s an emotional opinion that doesn’t differ in the slightest from any other emotional opinion, like, “Picard is the best captain,” or “I hate Nickelback.”

Sorry.

Where the term becomes insidious, however, is when it’s used to belittle the concerns of people fighting bigotry. When someone is objecting to bigotry in, for example, a news item, they are speaking out against injustice. A racist news article hurts real people. It contributes to the very real oppression people of color face every day. It perpetuates an aspect of our cultural mythology that literally kills people. And then someone in the thick of white fragility comes along and says, “I’m sorry you’re offended,” or “you get offended too easily,” or any number of variations. “I know this will offend some people but [racist comment supporting the article].”

racist_news

Black people “loot”; white people “find.”

Resisting bigotry is not the same as being “offended.” Resisting bigotry is to resist injustice against groups of people. It’s far bigger and more important than someone’s personal comfort level, and the people who use that word as a weapon against the fight for social justice understand that completely.

People who are resisting bigotry are often dismissed with the belittling idea that they’re “offended,” as if fighting cultural oppression and the tools with which it creates, disseminates, and preserves that oppression are equivalent to an imaginary schoolmarm shocked at finding the word “fuck” carved into a desk. No, we are not “offended.” We’re fighting bigotry, and it’s belittling to pretend it’s just about offending our personal, delicate sensibilities.

When someone points out an example of racism, misogyny, fat hatred, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any other kind of bigotry, people with privilege often reduce that act– a call for equality that’s at its core a challenge to privilege– to a matter of someone being personally “offended.” People who are white, male, thin, straight, cis, able-bodied, young, and/or who have Christian heritage (not the same as being a practicing Christian, as you experience all the privilege of your group regardless) will sometimes seek to preserve that privilege by characterizing resistance to bigotry as nothing but “taking offense”– having an easily-dismissable, personal opinion based in emotion. We must call this out whenever we see it.

When we’re talking about a casting practice, a review, or a play, that’s bigoted and perpetuating dangerous, oppressive cultural mythologies that have real-world consequences, we must call out and resist that belittling when it happens, and refuse to be lumped into the same category as people who are upset because they heard the word “fuck.”

We need to watch our own usage of this word as well. Do we really think the most important aspect of a racist play is that the racism is “offensive”– that someone would be upset by it? Shouldn’t we be calling attention to the larger fight– that perpetuating racism in our cultural mythology is dangerous and literally killing people of color? Do we really think the most important aspect of a misogynistic article is that it’s “offensive”– that someone would be upset by it? Continue to extrapolate this– Is the most important aspect of the preponderance of transphobia in our cultural mythology just “offensive”– upsetting individuals? Do we really believe the most important aspect of fat hatred, homophobia, ableism, etc, etc in our cultural mythology is their ability to upset people? Then why are we using that language? Why are we using the language of personal discomfort to describe our resistance to artifacts of our cultural mythology that oppress and even kill people? Why are we using language that makes us easy to dismiss– language people use specifically to belittle resistance?

I don’t mean to imply that people don’t experience personal discomfort with bigotry. But let’s not make the mistake of confusing personal discomfort with the way bigotry makes its targets feel unsafe; or, rather, be reminded of their existing lack of safety in our culture. That’s part and parcel of cultural oppression. When you (for example) target people of color with racial slurs, or otherwise use dehumanizing language about them, you’re not “offending” them– you’re terrorizing them. You’re invoking a cultural mythology that has real, material power at its back. You’re flexing a muscle that you know can harm or even kill. A person of color objecting to a racial slur is a human being resisting real, ongoing, culturally enforced oppression. That’s not personal discomfort caused by offense; it’s a visceral reaction to living through the kind of violence and oppression that lends bigoted speech and cultural artifacts their power. This is why jokes about people in power (“punching up”) are funny, but jokes about oppressed people (“punching down”) are furthering that oppression. You’re not “offending” people of color, women, trans* people, disabled people, fat people, or Muslims. You’re reminding them that our culture dehumanizes them, sees them as lacking worth, and continually devalues and violates their bodies, rights, and property. You’re reminding them that you belong to a group with power over them.

When you see someone using the word “offend” to belittle resistance against bigotry, call it out. Recognize what they’re doing and call it out. Don’t let them equate fighting for justice with primetime side boob ever again.

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3 thoughts on “Time to Retire the Word “Offended”

  1. Patrick Dooley says:

    Jon Stewart is retiring, but we still have Bitter Gertrude.

    >

  2. Zev Valancy says:

    Another element of this, I think, is that it allows liberals to sit out some of the fights against bigotry, because they see them as a case of “offense” rather than real harm, and turn it into a free speech vs. censorship issue. Doing a better job at making the harm being caused clear–and pushing back against those who attempt to belittle the harms as mere offenses–will hopefully get some of those people off the sidelines.

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