COLUMN: To offend or not to offend? If it's the truth, why worry?
Warning: If a discussion about being offended offends you, I don’t want you to read this column. No offense.
I’ve never really understood why people say “I’m offended.” I don’t think I’ve ever used that phrase in my life, except in jest. Those who say it seem to experience a mixture of shock, anger and revulsion at what someone else has done or said.
But what does the phrase “I’m offended” really mean? It is more than saying that something upsets you. When someone says I’ve offended them, they seem to be passing judgment on me and demanding an apology. I never like it when people use the o-word. A “please don’t say that” would suffice.
It especially befuddles me when people are offended by a public figure’s remarks. For example, when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for asking for insurance coverage for contraceptives , ordinary people across the country claimed offense over Limbaugh’s comments and demanded an apology. Why? Sure, what he said was rude, but we all know it had no basis in fact. I think we can safely assume Sandra Fluke is not a “slut” for thinking easy access to contraception is important.
The more reasonable approach would be to laugh at and shrug off the comments rather than bring national attention to them. That only increases Limbaugh’s visibility. Did people actually want an apology from him? Why did their satisfaction hinge on an apology from Rush Limbaugh to Sandra Fluke? I don’t see the connection. It almost seems like they are asking for a fight. In the words of David Allen: “My opinion is that anybody offended by breastfeeding is staring too hard.” Intuitively it seems like a good idea to be offended by Limbaugh’s ridiculous comment, but when examined the whole concept of being offended falls apart.
The fear of offending people makes its way into daily conversations as well. You can’t make that joke about the Japanese golfer because someone listening may have a distant relative with some tenuous connection to Japan. They will assume you are a racist for telling the Japanese-themed jest, even though in reality the joke praises Japanese ingenuity and belittles American values. After claiming offense, the vaguely-loyal-to-Japan person in question will not allow any discussion of the matter. Either you apologize or you are prejudiced against Japan.
The fear of someone taking offense is regrettable because it puts so many fascinating subjects off limits, such as religion, politics and relationships. Don’t discuss the existence of God. That will offend the theist! Don’t speak about Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. That will offend conservatives! And definitely don’t mention sex. That will offend virgins, celibates and the infertile!
A lot of the confusion comes from what people call “dark” humor, such as jokes about death. Some people are offended by these because they see the teller of the joke as belittling death or making fun of all people who have died, but that’s not really the purpose of dark humor at all. The point is to make unbearable things more bearable and to bring light and discussion to topics usually considered “off-limits.”
Well then, you may ask, if we can’t say “I’m offended,” how can we respond to people who say things we don’t like?
Try this. I knew a boy in middle school who didn’t like it when people used the word “retarded” as synonymous with “stupid.” If someone around him continually used it, he would ask them to stop. Most people would; some would ask why it bothered him. If they did he would explain that his little brother was retarded and he didn’t like people using “retarded” as a negative term, because it isn’t. Everyone respected him and tried their best to stop using the word.
This method is more reasonable and effective than using the O-word When someone says you have offended them, an invisible barrier pops up. It’s as if they are saying “You should have known better. What a bigot you are,” when in reality you had no intention of hurting anyone’s feelings. At least that’s how I feel.
So next time you feel the urge to tell someone you’re offended, think it through a bit. Are the person’s words completely false? Then there’s no reason to be upset. Just correct them. And if what they’re saying is true? Well then, you don’t really have a reason to be upset, do you? It may be tactless but it still is the truth. So before you throw out the O-word, think things through a bit.
Deeply offended by this article or did I express your thoughts exactly? Somewhere in between? Go ahead and share your thoughts in the comments section below. I promise I won’t be offended.
Tom Rains is a Spanish senior.