You’ve seen this, no doubt.
If I never have to see this quote or picture again, I think the world would be a better place.
Now, it’s not because it’s false. It’s not because Fry isn’t spot on about this being a sometimes correct reaction to, say, wide-eyed religious conservatives who want to ban books, censor science, etc. Indeed, the context was in conversation with Christopher Hitchens about the pernicous way “offense” from religious people was seen as sufficient reason to censor – it was about the idiot notion of blasphemy as still regarded as legitimate in secular, civil society. (South Africa couldn’t distribute a book some years ago because it offended some members of the Muslim community. That mindset, years ago, is also why I heard about and wanted to read The Satanic Verses; and one-two-skip-a-few I’m now an ex-Muslim. Streisand Effect leading to atheism.)
The problem is this assertion is used to dismiss actual concerns, too. A popular way this translates is to dismiss your opponents as merely offended and leave it at that. “You’re just trying to find something to be offended by”, is the often touted response.
Again: let’s just set a baseline. Being offended isn’t an argument: it’s merely a state, and perhaps you’re better off describing yourself as angered, sad, or whatever. After all, offensive – like attractive – requires someone for whom it is offensive. You can always ask “offensive to whom?”. Then ask why. But before all this, it’s better to outline an argument.
A recent example was seen here in South Africa, after two students decided blackface in the age of Facebook was a good idea. Many people responded with shrugs, unconcerned, claiming people were finding ways to be offended; that being offended was meaningless, blah blah, jarre jarre. So again, smart people have to explain to these other people why blackface is, you know, a fucking terrible idea.
Now notice: it’s been explained. It’s been outlined. Maybe you find the argument lacking. Maybe you think blackface shouldn’t be a big deal and we’re better off ignoring. Whatever. You can then mount your argument, however successfully.
What you shouldn’t do is assert people are “just” being offended. Yes, some might not be able to explain why blackface is problematic, as eloquently as someone who writes for The New York Times. But reasoning does exist. There is an interesting question about what happens when that reasoning exists but the offended person can’t explain it well – or perhaps at all.
When I am struggling to understand people’s reactions, I don’t tend to base it on the all-caps screaming racist in the comment section. When I want to engage in, say, capital punishment, I’d want to know what makes rational people support it; not why the equivalent of the weird uncle thinks so.
If people are really outraged by something, there is a reason why. It could absolutely be worth dismissing – for example, angry conservative religious people who want a book banned or science censored or medicine banished. Or, perhaps, it’s because women are systematically targeted unfairly; perhaps because people of colour are hardly represented in major media and are tired of it. Whatever it is, we all educate ourselves and are better off trying to understand.
That understanding might lead you to conclude Fry’s response, as per blasphemy laws. But it should be conclusion, not reaction. Dismissing people’s legitimate concerns as them wanting to be offended only further belittles these concerns and dismisses real world issues they might have. With all the literature and articles about sexism, for example, to claim every instance is just women wanting attention, playing the victim, etc., ignores the societal problem they’re focused on.
Maybe the problem isn’t marginalised people’s voices but more privileged people’s silence and dismissal. If all that one group’s outrage does is annoy you, don’t be surprised if this group’s actual concern matters more than making your life mildly more convenient. Maybe try listen. Or maybe ignore.
But, at the very least, it’s time we start using the “So fucking what” response more carefully and stop caricaturing people’s concerns as “being merely offended”.