Being offended simply means you have a justified emotion (as measured by society) relating to a personal experience and as such it becomes much easier to legislate based on that emotion. This is why the difference between that emotion by itself and being offended is important. Our morals may dictate our sense of justice, but the mechanism for this is being offended. This is my argument for treating emotion and offense separately. Let me also make it clear: if you go into a comedy club, don’t be offended, it’s rather offensive…
On Being Offended
I need a safe space
Imagine you had a spouse who died of cancer the day your child was born. Life goes on, but you never fully heal. You decide one day to go to a comedy club watch a stand up show that every person in the world has been invited to. An amateur comedian opens and makes a tasteless joke about a spouse dying of cancer and you are offended along with many others. You did not find the joke funny at all and neither did anyone else. Another, more seasoned comedian makes a joke about spousal cancer, and this time it goes over well with half the crowd, but you are still offended as are some other audience members. Yet another comedian of higher caliber tells a spousal cancer joke that kills (pun intended). 90% of the crowd laughs hysterically, but you are still offended. Not only did cancer take away your spouse, but it also took away the possibility of having a normal family. Finally the best comedian in the world comes on stage and tells a spousal cancer joke so funny, every single person except you, even those who have experienced the same things you have, finds it absolutely hilarious. Does society allow you to be offended even though we are able to see that every single person EXCEPT you is ok with the joke? Or do we say, “Lighten up”?
Feeling offended in this scenario seems to stem from the fact that a person has experienced something negative in their life (i.e. losing a spouse to cancer) and had that negative brought up again. Cancer, in the mind of the offended, killed their spouse and making light of this fact hurts because others are laughing at a memory which brought them pain. Even if no one laughs, someone had to originate the “joke” which was intended to make someone laugh. So at the very least, the originator (comedian) had this intent. That disconnect of someone laughing at your pain is “feeling offended” by the joke. But now we have a problem. Pain can mean a great deal of different things and the level of pain experienced by a certain event can vary (i.e. some people handle a painful event well, while others cannot let it go). In addition, each person has their own viewpoint on each event. In any case, “Why we feel offense” seems to be an easier question to answer than “who do we as a society allow to be offended”, and the latter question is of consequence and shapes our justice system.
Suppose a murderer is let out of jail on parole due to a clerical error. They go to a comedy show and the comic does a joke about rape. The murderer claims “I was raped multiple times in jail and I am offended at this. It was a source of pain and others are laughing at it, ergo offense taken”.
We don’t as readily accept this. Someone who murdered another person seems to have their right to take offense removed, or at the very least mitigated, by society. In some sense, it is a scale of a person’s own moral beliefs. Instead of a murderer, what if it was a thief? If you steal from someone and get raped in jail, are you allowed to be offended by a rape joke? What if instead of a murderer it was a prostitute who was raped while they were working? What if instead of a prostitute, it was a college student who had one too many drinks and was taken advantage of? What if instead of a college student it was a child who was raped at a young age? I think we all feel differently in each of these scenarios, and we feel like the outrage is more justified as the stories become more in line with our own moral views. But all of these cases involve the same pain of a subject, with the same response from the subject. “I was raped, you are making fun of rape, and therefore I am offended. I have pain, others are laughing at that pain, and therefore I am offended”. Why do we treat these situations differently, then?
How do things change if I told you the murderer was sentenced not for killing an innocent person, but for killing someone who murdered their own daughter? It changes everything. If your daughter was murdered, and you killed the person who did it, then got sent to jail for the murder, raped multiple times while in jail, and paroled due to bad evidence or a clerical error years later only to have these memories brought up by a rape joke, the murderer’s circumstance and feelings are much easier to consider.
What if I told you the murderer was sent to jail for committing war crimes in the form of torture in the Middle East? Ah, now things get tricky. Now your personal judgement depends on how you view the idea of torture. What if by torturing that person he saved the lives of a million people elsewhere? These moral thought experiments are old and played out, but the important thing to note is in each situation your brain does a calculation of whether or not you would allow that person to be offended. Our morals dictate who we allow to be offended, regardless of whether or not they feel offended.
I’d like to stop here and remind readers that intent matters, especially when dealing with offense. Consequentialists be damned, no one can possibly know everything about every person. If you are a comedian and your intent is to make people laugh, it becomes hard, in my mind, to hold you accountable for “offending” someone who had their spouse killed by cancer or who was raped, to use my earlier examples. If you knew a person in the audience went through a very tough time in their life, and purposefully brought it back up specifically to hurt them, I believe this is a different situation and the comedian is probably a dick. But this difference in intent is a key difference in a person feeling offended and having people accepting their offense.
Intent goes beyond this topic as well. Unintended consequences can be damaging, but from a moral standpoint, I believe intent is the only thing that matters. If we only believe consequences matter, we can end up with two morally opposed people standing on equal moral ground, which is absurd.
One prick at a time
At what point do we as individuals allow another person to be in the state of “being offended”? It is not at the point when our own life experiences match that person’s. I feel perfectly at ease allowing certain rape victims to be offended by a rape joke even though I have never personally been raped.
It is not when the person feeling offended has crossed my own moral line. I think it is immoral to steal from someone; however I feel the thief in the above example has the right to be offended. I think what is happening here is that a person will judge the actual pain first (whether it is true AND justified), then compare it with the causality of the pain, determine if the cause of the pain is more or less moral than the actual pain, and go from there. This is not done consciously in most cases, and instead often seems to be done by a “gut feeling”. If the cause of pain is more moral (in the eyes of the “judger”) than the act which induced the pain, the person is “allowed” by the “judger” to be offended. If the cause of pain is less moral than the act which induced the pain, the “judger” does not “allow” a person to be offended. Allow here means “believing their act of feeling offended a just and truthful act”.
One side note here since I am speaking of “jokes”: If you are in a comedy club and feel offended, I think you should quietly leave or remain quiet until the show is over. Afterwards, I have no problem with you blogging your heart out about what happened, and as long as you are being truthful, I say we let society judge. This, again, is where intent comes into play. A comedian telling a joke without knowing the personal experiences of every single person in the room should not disqualify the telling of a certain category of jokes. If you felt wronged, put it out in the open and be truthful about the circumstances. It is some deranged form of democracy that seems great at first, until you realize no one is voting for freedom. The important aspect we are currently failing on is our definition of what it is to feel or be offended, actually.
Of course there will be those who simply state no one is allowed to be offended ever by any joke. It’s all joking around and if you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else. What do we do about these people? There are even some that get outraged at someone feeling or being offended. Why? If you ask them you will no doubt get the answer: “Because it is just a joke and you shouldn’t be allowed to be offended at jokes, let alone feel offended by them”. In essence what this person is saying is “The pain you feel from the joke being brought up is either fake, or not worth the effort of getting riled up and should be disregarded”.
One point at a time: How do we know it is fake? This is the argument that happens a lot in online debates.
Let’s imagine a woman who has made a fortune and a career out of suing her coworkers at previous jobs for sexual harassment. She has done this multiple times and at her new job, she overhears a coworker say “I love my wife; there is always a home cooked meal when I get home and she really treats me well”. The woman says “That is highly offensive; my ex-husband forced me to stay in the kitchen all day long and made me cook against my will. It was terrible and you saying that brought up a bad memory. You are being sexist and I am offended”. How do we respond to this? Is her offense justified? Some people will look to her previous sexual harassment suits as proof she is immoral and her being offended should be discounted, but this has nothing to do with either the cause of her pain, or the perceived offense. But the second we know a person’s moral integrity relative to our own, things seem to get slippery. What if she had been in a relationship previously where her ex-husband tied her to a chain and forced her to cook and do a bunch of degrading tasks all day long? What if this caused a psychotic breakdown in her mind which led to her wanting to sue her male coworkers in some weird form of revenge she cannot control? What if she had won every harassment suit because they were all true with concrete evidence to prove it? These are some of the things people forget when debating a topic such as this. Not that this happens all the time, but we have almost 400 million people in this country and some of them are going to have strange and unique experiences. And we have just as much luck getting one over the other (more on that later).
Second point: “Don’t get offended, it is not worth the effort of getting riled up since words are just words”. This is where the point must be driven home that being offended and feeling offended are two different things. You can “feel offense” without “being offended” because to “be offended” means others accept your offense. It is a state of being that is granted to a person by society or an individual, much like pity. You can feel pity for yourself but that is just “self-pity” (obviously) and others have to grant “pity” to you for the state to make any external sense. Otherwise you’re just mopey. In the case of non-granted offense, you’re a “social justice warrior” of the pejorative kind.
As you can imagine, some offensive situations like the previous one have nothing to do with humor or jokes. Back to my original idea of what being offended by a joke is: a disconnect between the pain of a past experience of the offended, and the desire of the offender to laugh at that pain. Anyone else feeling outraged is empathizing or lying. No offense, but we’ll need a more generalized definition if we are to understand what it is to be offended more broadly.
Offending a broader audience
So, what about those situations that don’t involve humor? If you have a painful memory in your life and it is simply brought up (see the above example), does the individual have the right to be offended AND do individuals have a moral obligation to accept their offense? Is it enough that someone is simply “celebrating” (I love my wife for…) something that caused you such a troubled past? This happens quite often in our world. Instead of someone laughing at a painful event, someone is celebratory towards a symbol that others perceive as bigoted or religiously intolerant, etc. Think about someone who slaps swastika stickers on their vehicle. Or, more recently, this example:
African Americans are often offended by symbols / reminders of the civil war. The pain felt here is one of racism (whether rightly or wrongly it does not matter, the individual has no constraints on feeling offended), and the causality of that pain is being born black and all that goes with it including memories from a different time (whether first, second, or third hand “memories”), past negative experiences, etc. The rub here comes from those who believe that feeling of racism is misplaced. For an individual to accept the offense of someone else, they must first accept the pain the offended is feeling is real (there is no way to know this as an outside observer) and justified (in a moral sense). No one can rationally argue being born a minority is less moral (the minority’s morality) than having someone being racist towards them (the racist’s morality). Instead, supporters of the civil war symbols (such as statues, the confederate flag, etc.) make the claim that the person should not feel this way because the symbols are not racist by themselves; they are a celebration of southern heritage. That becomes a hard point of contention because who can tell someone what something means to them? I can’t tell them it is racist any more than I can tell them the Christian cross has its roots in torture or in an ancient Egyptian symbol for lightning. The symbol itself may contain a racist history as well, but it does not exclude the other forms of symbolism it takes. I’d wager many folks disagree with me there. And there are some who are hootin’ and hollerin’ on the other side as well. It is an important point and if those who celebrate the confederacy were to concede this, they would find it hard to argue against the minority’s right to be offended, as would anyone else.
What about those who get offended at something, despite never having personally been affected by that something? How about white people who are offended by Civil War statues? The emotion they feel is empathy for those who have experienced this situation, not offense. Or, more insidiously, they are simply lying and taking a position I’ve heard called “recreational outrage” by Joe Rogan (great term). This is an especially dangerous concept because as mentioned before, who we allow to be offended can dictate our sense of morality and our sense of justice. Recreational outrage happens when a person experiences something they believe SHOULD cause offense, and take the role of offended without empathy, and without the personal experience of pain. They do this because being someone who is offended (as judged by society) is a powerful and rewarding state when no deep foundational pain exists as the cause of the offense. You get all the benefits of moral righteousness and superiority without having lived through the negative aspects. It is the reason we should be very thoughtful about who we allow to be offended.
Stay on the offensive: benefits?
All civil rights leaders’ careers began with feeling offended. There is nothing wrong with that statement but I have to defend it here anyways and tell everyone who reads this it is definitely NOT intended to be racist or bigoted in any way. Every single one of their careers hinged on them believing there was an injustice in this world, which started with them feeling offended at that notion. The notion was that some men were not treated as equals under the law. Martin Luther King Jr. doesn’t have a dream if he doesn’t feel offended at racial injustice. Because of that injustice he helped lead a movement, and you can go read history books if you can’t see where I’m going with this. The seed of progress is feeling offended. But often, too many fake seeds grow too many fake trees which rise to the top and block all the light….and our society stands still. Then when true and just offense comes, there is no sun or water to grow it. It’s like a sad version of the boy who cried wolf.
The fact of the matter is feeling offended leads to change. All major change events that were man made happened because of offense, whether right or wrong (bold statement, I know) and whether the offense was granted by society or not. Furthermore, even if it is NOT granted, change because of it is still possible. I can’t see the holocaust happening without Hitler’s feeling offended towards the existence of Jewish people. However, much of society did not grant him this offense and today we look at him as the embodiment of evil. Yet he changed things, a lot. He was able to do this through violence and yes, some believed in his offense. This is why our perception of what is moral is important and why our laws need to be shaped by our morals in a realistic way (I’m not here to debate that one, too long). It allows us to gauge, as a society, the appropriate level of offended-ness we’ll allow which in turn dictates the amount of change and turbulence that happens.
What are we offended about?
The next 3000 pages will be dedicated to everything the world as a whole feels offended at. Not really, but it would probably take more space than that. The variability of human psychology and experience is such that there will always be someone who had the experience because if they didn’t, in the case of a joke, no one would be joking about it. But people who fake feeling offended have to base it in some reality. For example, if a human went on the television and proclaimed “I feel offended at all the people picking flowers because I’m a flower and I find it in poor taste for people to go plucking my brothers and sisters out of their dirty slumber”, you’d probably think them feeling offended is a little ridiculous as does most of society. No new laws are enacted to protect budding flowers and everyone lives happily ever after.
But if things are based more in reality, it becomes MUCH harder to tell if someone or a group of people are lying. Group think is absolutely a thing. What if someone goes on television and proclaims they feel offended that guns are still legal after a mass shooting? They have likely not been part of a mass shooting or knew anyone in a mass shooting (if that has happened, I am wrong in those instances), and therefore cannot be offended by it. It makes no sense to feel offended because of the loss of life as there are plenty of other causes of death which far outweigh a mass shooting. Unless they are experiencing empathy! Fair enough, especially in the cases of school shootings. “Hey that could be my kid out there, I feel for you people I’ve never met”. There are also other emotions they could be feeling: fear, doubt, anger, but they can’t be offended at this because that is a separate thing altogether. This is an issue because our justice system is very much impacted upon by our ideas of who we allow to be offended and in what situations. If we continually allow those who are not actually offended to claim they are, ridiculous and unnecessary laws could be the result.
They may also simply be lying. There are plenty of nefarious reasons why someone wants to have an “offended” status on them, attention being the biggest one. Careers are made from bloggers and columnists being outraged. Advancing a particular political agenda is an obvious reason to lie about feeling offended. Another reason is having the “offended” status awarded to you by society means you have the moral high ground as measured by that society. And if society awards it to someone and you DON’T agree with it, you scream louder to turn the tide away from it being acceptable outrage. Back and forth it goes until equilibrium is reached 2 hours later and a new controversy appears on everyone’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. But that moral high ground feeling is more than just “moral superiority”. It is assurance that our worldviews are in line with what is acceptable in our own society. It is a tribal test, and those who aren’t passing tend to scream the loudest.
I want examples!
Many people today are upset at the apparent “whitewashing” of Hollywood. They point to films about ancient Egypt starring an obviously Nordic looking man as an ancient God. They look at an old film like The Conqueror and see that John Wayne is playing Genghis Khan and wonder “why don’t they cast somebody who is closer in line with the historical truth”? One truth everyone knows is that big names equate to big money, and before anything else, Hollywood is all about that money. But actors who are routinely denied roles they seem to be “born for”, never get the chance to become big. For many years, the majority of the movie theater audiences in the United States were all white, and as such, white stars sold more. It is an unsavory fact about human beings, but we are tribal. I do not want to get caught up in these details, however. The point here is to analyze whether or not the taking of offense is justified. In this case, a mixture of jealousy and anger felt by the actor has manifested into them feeling offended. I will lay out a scenario where society should allow the actor to be offended. Assume at some point in the actor’s past they were prejudiced against due to their race. Later on in their career, they went to a casting and were denied the role because they “weren’t white” (assume this was said explicitly to them). That actor has the right to be offended, because their personal experience requires it. They had X happen, X is happening again and it brings back negative memories, ergo the actor is offended. Since, as far as I know, we have not heard of any of these cases, I believe society should not grant offense to these types of complaints until one such incident does arise. This will not be a popular stance and many will accuse me of racism and bigotry. However, it is the logical position in my eyes. Sometimes logic loses out in these battles and our emotions dictate who we allow to be offended. This is a good example of that disconnect. The stakes are low in this example, and the result ends up being a more diverse cast of characters in Hollywood (this isn’t a bad thing). The important thing is no major laws are enacted as a result of this.
Discussing racism / Islam
This one is tricky. Simply stating facts in a discussion about these subjects can cause some to feel offended. It is also one where identity politics and emotional flair seem to win out over any type of science or rationality on a national scale. Take for instance, the statistic that shows black men are much more likely to kill other black men, while white men are much more likely to kill other white men. If we extrapolate this to say “when a police officer receives a call about a homicide of a black man, they should be on the lookout for a black suspect”, things get dicey and the word bigot is thrown around. But if we extrapolate it to “when a police officer receives a call about a homicide of a white man, they should be on the lookout for a white suspect”, it doesn’t seem as bad. No one is offended by the second statement, while many are offended by the first. Many black Americans have experienced an unwarranted stop by the police, to that there is no doubt in my mind. But if the thing that is causing a person to feel offended is the truth, how can we allow the person to be offended by it? Do victims of pedophilia have the right to be offended at research that suggests almost 80% of pedophilia victims become pedophiles themselves? We have to start encouraging discussions around facts because our ability to be properly offended depends on having correct information. To feel offended at a fact is to tarnish that which gives your offense power.
With Islam, the stakes are even higher. Here we have a religion which includes a great number of peaceful practitioners as well as those who view the Quran in a different way. What matters here is justifications for negative behavior do exist in the dogma, and this is a problem. When these points are brought up, many Muslims (and of course non-Muslims who feel like they can sneak in their own self-righteousness) become defensive and some feel offended at both the existence of those doing the negative behavior on behalf of their God, and any criticism trying to explain why these radicals exist within the context of the Quran. We have to be careful here, because this is not true offense. Remember, if we are to stay consistent with our definition of being offended, it has to involve a pain a person has felt in the past, and that pain must be brought back up. Only then are conditions right for society to allow someone to be offended properly. If I make the claim that the Quran justifies violence in the form of radical terrorism, what personal pains could this possibly be linked to which functions in the same way as a rape victim being around people laughing at a joke about rape?
The “F” word and other slurs and our right to privacy
Here is an example of a cultural shift as opposed to a legislative change. Growing up, I used the word “fag” a lot. The joke has been done to death, but like Louis CK I never used it to mean gay. It had its own unique meaning and it was fun to say. But many homosexuals started getting very offended at the word, and slowly but surely it was limited in the lexicon. I hardly ever hear it said anymore, and personally do not use it except when writing about it. Obviously I am allowing these homosexuals to be offended at this as is most of society, at least in public. This is true for any racial slur or joke made. That is because it is a no brainer. I guarantee they had a few encounters with this word while growing up. It was probably said to them in a hateful way, and made them feel ashamed and terrible. Bringing that word up again rekindles these feelings and true offense is felt. This one is relatively straightforward for myself and was more of a culture shift than causing any legislation or censorship. It is also the same reason I think it is perfectly fine for a black person to be offended at someone dropping an “n-bomb”.
This is all very fascinating because we see it systematically taking away our right to privacy when it happens to a public figure. Any time someone with notoriety does or says something that causes people to be offended, even if it was said in confidence and/or privately, they can be judged as if they had intended for others to hear, including those who could be offended. If the actual intent is to make sure no one who hears it is capable of being offended, the other intended response could have been empathy, even in the form of anger, agreement, etc. Say a famous person is talking to his friend and says something terrible about [insert group here]. Assume the friend has many other friends who are [insert group here] and thinks that is out of line, but the famous person had no idea of this. The friend is not offended, just empathetic and angry. But if he were to record the entire conversation and release it, no one bats a lash at this perversion of privacy. I don’t think we are consistent with how we allow angry people to act in this situation. Angry people don’t get the benefit of eroding our constitutional rights, offended people do. I think we have a harder time publicly chastising someone for trying to make someone angry. It’s even a common political move, fluster your opponent in a debate and call them unhinged. But if you insult your opponent on, say, a racial basis, all hell would break loose. When dealing with public figures, this division seems to dissolve away. This is another key difference between true offense and empathy. Even if it is terrible to do, the friend has no personal experience of being [insert group here] and cannot be offended by it. Yet we as a society allow it because if we did not, we would be more up in arms about the total violation of privacy the famous person just gave up. We chalk it up to “well they gave their right to privacy away because they are in the public spotlight”. What about the people who receive death threats for having their comments pushed into public view, even when they have no fame themselves?
What types of people are allowed to be offended and what purpose does being offended serve?
Is everyone allowed to be offended? We’ve already made the argument that no, not everyone is allowed. If, were he still alive, Osama Bin Laden’s newly born child was tortured and murdered by United States troops while he was out to dinner with friends, and someone put a joke up on his cave wall about it for him to see when he got home, would anyone be outraged when he got on the news to tell us all how offensive that is? Surely there would some who condemn us for doing the act of torturing and murdering someone’s newborn child (and rightfully so), no matter how evil their parents may be. And some may even agree with his decision to feel offended. But I don’t believe we as a society give Bin Laden the satisfaction of being offended in the same way we don’t let the murderer who was raped in jail complain about a rape joke. But then, why is being offended satisfying? What urge does it fulfill? If we have someone we hate like a Bin Laden, our instinct is to deny anything that is beneficial or good to them. We don’t want him to have a nice luxurious house any more than we want him to be in a loving relationship partly because we do not like thinking evil is comfortable. In this Bin Laden scenario, being outwardly offended is a beneficial and good thing for him. It alleviates or at the very least disassociates some of the pain experienced from his child dying and allows him to internalize a sense of moral justice from within. Society has a hard time allowing evil to feel morally right.
But what about those who are offended who do not speak up about it? Repression of feelings like these is clearly an issue and not a good thing. If you believe you are wronged, it is beneficial to have society agree with you. Imagine being the person in the first example I gave. Your spouse has died and will never be able to meet your children. Every single person in society is accepting that your pain is something they can laugh at. You were devastated by your loss and when you speak up about your offense everyone tells you to “lighten up”. This does nothing to relieve the pressure and pain you are experiencing. Let’s say an alien lands, analyzes the scenario and says to you “I am so sorry everyone is laughing at this. You must feel really bad and they are totally wrong for doing this”. The vindication from just one person who agrees with you would offer SOME semblance of relief. This chasm between feeling offended (truthfully, whether justified or not) and being offended can create serious issues. What if the person who thought they were a flower in one of the examples above ACTUALLY believed they were 100%, without a doubt, a flower? Imagine the pain they would internalize if they continually saw society picking flowers out of the ground and selling them off. They may be inclined to attack anyone picking flowers because no one believes they are offended and flower picking laws are not changing!
This absurd example can be scaled to a more reasonable level. Any situation where a person truthfully (not legitimately, this is a big difference) feels offended and does not receive approval from society (again, this is why it is not legitimate) to do so will experience a type of angst that can manifest itself in undesirable ways.
Identity: Don’t tell me what to do!
Telling someone they are not allowed to be offended often leads to some sort of conflict. This is human nature. You have freedom of your thoughts, but when your own thoughts about yourself are wrong (the gap between feeling and being offended), this creates a cognitive dissonance that is more often than not released in the form of ad hominem or some sort of physical retaliation. There is a fierce battle to feel like you are in control of and correct about your own thoughts. If someone says “you can’t be offended by that”, even if you can’t, you will feel this dissonance.
A person’s identities have a lot to do with how they view the world, their moral code, and their willingness to feel offended and to allow others to be offended. For example, I have no children as of writing this. If this changed, my worldview could potentially go through a complete transformation. I could find love I have never felt before in this little life, and I could potentially have it tragically taken away from me by some freak accident. It is terrible to think about, but it could happen. I would then probably be more apt to allow someone to be offended at a joke about infant death.
It is important to speak on religion at this point because it is perhaps the strongest identity there is. It has the ability to transcend any other, even being human. I write music, but I am sure I am very much a human being more so than a musician. I am white, but I am still a human first. I am American, but empires fall; give me humanity! The fact that religion offers a way for us to think about shedding our humanity and moving on from this material world suggests that anyone who actually believes in this will think of themselves as a follower of their religion before they are human. A Christian is a Christian first, and a human second. So when you tell them they cannot be offended based on this identity, shit hits the fan and the tug of war starts.
More interestingly, feeling offended has become an identity. Never feeling offended has also become an identity. There are people who will look at a situation, and regardless of what is happening, will find something to be offended about. Even if the situation was the complete opposite of what it was, they would still find something to feel offended at.
What offends me?
Nothing so far. I find some things obscene, and I’d rather not watch certain videos featuring hostage decapitations if I don’t have to. I’ve felt bad for someone for being in their presence when an insensitive remark was made towards [insert demographic here]. I’ve felt uncomfortable around friends who don’t know who their fucking audience is and end up saying something very racist in public that you can’t defend. But I’ve never had a joke or any statement bring up a painful memory of an event I have had in my life. In all honesty, I have been very fortunate and no event has been painful enough for me to feel true offense. Maybe that is why it’s easy for me to subscribe to a hard deterministic version of free will. If something terrible had happened in my life, I may choose for personal reasons to have a different point of view. But my life experience dictates my view on free will, and in a way, proves the determinist angle. I have no choice. Whether or not my philosophy matches any other does not matter, however. What matters is how we are offended and our philosophy dictates that. Events have smaller meaning and people’s actions become more understandable through the lens of determinism. What happens is you realize no one is in control and that excuses most actions (from blame, not punishment). Time will tell, as I can’t know how I will react if or when a really horrible event happens in my life.
Is being angry at something someone says the same as being offended by it? No, of course not and this distinction is often confused. I have seen and know plenty of people who do not get angry when offended, just sad. There are a ton of people who view injustices relating to personal experience in the world with sorrow in their hearts. You can feel full anger without an ounce of offense, and full offense without any anger. The important difference is how we view those who are angry and those who are offended. We tend to feel more sympathy and compassion for the person who is offended over the person who is angry. If someone makes the claim “I’m angry at your rape joke” as opposed to “I’m offended at your rape joke”, I believe these are two different things that are often lied about by the person making that claim. Too often people are angry yet claim they are offended and, as mentioned before, this has consequences. You see this frequently with white people claiming they are offended at a racist statement made by some public person. This is not offense. This is anger through empathy at racial injustice.
My stance on free will certainly skews how I view taking personal offense. Who cares if someone said something to me, they didn’t choose to. I take offense to nothing anyone says because I have no negative experiences to base it on, just unlucky ones I had no control over. It is the logical position to never feel offended; however I still feel anger and I allow others to be offended when I can. Why not? If you offend a loved one enough, for example, I will lash out due to you making them feel this way. This is not pacifism. If you make fun of me or bring up anything that I could consider a painful memory, I’d be angry if it were bad enough. But I would not feel offended. As I mentioned before, I have a blessed life for whatever that term is worth. Nothing has been brought up to me in a way that reminds me of a memory that was painful because I honestly have no painful memories. Going back to free will, it becomes impossible to blame anyone for anything, but here we are, finishing the circle, back to wondering if my attitude would change if something bad did happen in the future…
Reactions to a society of mass offense
I would not find it hard to argue that our society today takes more offense on average than at any other time in history. This could be due to two factors: the emergence of eclecticism, and the invention of social media.
Eclecticism holds that there is no real paradigm and takes from a variety of different ideas and sources. We see it in today’s culture and in music especially. There is a defined baroque style, a defined classical and romantic style, etc. but not 21st century “style”. Instead it is a mash of different cultural and historical forms. You also see it in philosophy and psychology. Often, people will cherry pick different ideas from different eras to create a cohesive, albeit not-as-elegant idea. I believe this opens up a way of thinking which allows for “recreational outrage” because personal identity becomes sacred without art and science having one of their own. What better reason to hold on to personal identity so hard other than having no identity elsewhere? It also allows a person to cherry pick things without having to stay to a rigid set of ideas. Hypocrisy knows no bounds to the offended. Or to this author.
Social media simply gives the individual the outlet to express their offense on a mass scale. Once this happens (and the story is big enough) the societal machine comes in and makes its judgement. The Suey Park incident regarding Stephen Colbert’s satirical comments about the Washington Redskin’s owner comes to mind here. She was outraged at Colbert even though they were both trying to make the same point. It became a very large story after social media propped it up, due to a level of manufactured outrage the likes of which had never been seen previously. And society judged. And Suey Park lost. Next.
Consequences of Offense
It is no secret that today we have things called “safe spaces”, many appearing on college campuses and liberal circles alike. These are insanely damaging to our society as a whole. As mentioned before, all progress starts with being offended. A safe space is somewhere to go when you do not want to be offended. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this “lalala I can’t hear you” echo chamber is creating a society where real genuine outrage and offense is substituted for the manufactured outrage and fake offense we see. The result will be a society that either makes the wrong progress or no progress at all. Many younger people seem to be scared or unwilling to actually feel offended, even though fixing a problem starts with understanding the other side of the argument. Instead, they read about things from their computer screen, insulated from personal interaction, and comment. They decry anyone who thinks differently from them under the guise of feeling offended. This is a scary and dangerous paradigm, and one that stifles freedom of thought, expression, and speech.
Take a look at any public figure either speaking or writing about controversial issues. Some get death threats, some are told they “need to stop being a thing” (I hate this way of writing…) or that they are “the worst” (kill me). Some are murdered. In 2016, members of a rebellion group against ISIS decided to spray paint their insignia near one of ISIS’ strongholds. The next day a few people were beheaded for the “offense”. I wager there are certain people I could burn a bible in front of and before long there’d be a shotgun shell to my face. There are literally no instances where I can say a certain racial slur in front of black people without facing consequences. Look, I understand these situations are different and insulting ISIS is a far cry from shouting racial slurs, plus I guarantee that we as a society grant offense to the black people over ISIS. That is not the point. The point is that what is the same in each scenario is our reaction towards certain symbols and words: violence. This violence stems from that injustice we feel when we feel offended, which is a scary thought. Everyone has their own responsibility to only feel as offended as their philosophy allows, and if society does not allow them to be offended, they either change their philosophy or fight back.
Another example of a serious consequence to who we allow to be offended is its ability to make changes in the law. Let it be known that the following example is simply used to describe a situation where our views on who can be offended helped shape law, no bigotry is intended. Recently there has been a huge push for transgender rights, mostly from the left. Bruce Jenner’s high profile transition into Caitlin Jenner helped push issues for the transgender community into the public eye. Fast forward a bit and new legislation is being passed to require schools that want to receive federal funding to build transgender specific bathrooms or for public restrooms to acknowledge a gender transition has taken place, meaning someone who was born a man and changes their gender to female can now use the female bathroom. How did this happen? A variety of factors. I am going to use male to female for this example because they are simply way more common than the reverse situation. First, many of them decided to use the women’s restrooms in public areas. There were people who did not agree with this and claimed it was irresponsible for a company such as Target (for example) to allow this to happen. The reasons cited ranged from “I just don’t feel right about it” to “they’re going to rape everyone in the bathroom”. The transgender now claims “I feel offended”. The pain could be from being accused of rape at another point in their lives, or it could simply be the baggage of being born how they are (much like our African American example). Either way it does not matter, as we now know the person must be able to feel they are offended. Whether we allow the offense depends on who you ask. As a society, it appears we do indeed allow trans folk to be offended at having to use the bathroom of their sex at birth. It blew up on social media and became part of the national debate. Constituents made their opinion clear and now we have things called “bathroom laws”.
He said, She said.
If I were to ask you what your preferred gender pronoun is, would you have an answer? I personally do not. I have no preference to be called “him” over “her”, because it is not a preference. You are either male or female and either a “him” or a “her”. This does not exclude transgendered people. What has appeared, however, is a ridiculous subsection of human beings who like to feel offended at the fact that someone does not lead a conversation with the question at the beginning of this section. Could you imagine walking up to everyone you first meet and asking “Excuse me, what is your preferred gender pronoun”? What’s more, there are people who can seemingly switch back and forth between genders, and feel offended if you call them the wrong pronoun while they are in one particular gender-state over the other. This has to be some kind of new mechanism for recreational outrage, because you are damned if you he, and damned if you she.
One last thing on the consequences of being offended – it has created some rather unsavory tactics of debate, even when debating who is allowed to be offended! If, for example, I believe the bathroom laws to be a waste of tax payer’s money and time, I am a bigot. No thought goes into whether or not I as an individual simply decided not to allow the trans-person to be offended. This has nothing to do with my supposed intolerance towards the group as a whole. Intolerance would mean that I will NOT under any circumstances allow the person to be offended. Analyzing a situation and making up your mind is the hallmark of tolerance and I think it wise we stop using terms like bigot so flippantly. For what it’s worth, in the case of bathroom laws, I think we should be free to go where we wanna go, because when you gotta go, you gotta go.
Being offended has its use in politics. Our two party system is a cesspool for feeling offended and holier than thou, on both sides of the spectrum. When one side is offended by the other, and legislation is passed in their own favor, they can be vindictive and angry. The basic idea is those on the left are happy with and delight at, to use a somewhat recent example, a bakery refusing to sell cakes for homosexual weddings closing down. Even if the bakers have a family and children to take care of, and losing their bakery means potential anguish for an innocent child, those on the left will engage in schadenfreude. I think this is wrong. But if you are offended, it gives you the power and no one questions you on it because “like oh my god I’m so offended by that”. Ethics out the door!
Scope of Offense
I hope the thing you realize from reading this is how much of an umbrella term “offended” is. And I also hope you realize this should not be the case, considering how important it is for us to think hard about who should actually be offended. The experience of the person in the opening example is a different situation than, say, a white person feeling offended at something racially insensitive. One person has actually experienced the thing being brought up, while the other person has not. That distinction is everything. If you haven’t lived through something, people will not give you the benefit of the doubt, unless you happen to say you are offended. You could have a society where everybody is tall except one person. If someone makes a joke about being short, if the short guy does NOT feel offended, should we make a law barring short jokes? What if every single tall person feels empathy for someone being made fun of and mistakes this for feeling offended, even though the short guy does not care in the slightest? What if the short guy liked short jokes?! Now his day is ruined, thanks a lot social justice warriors.