“So what if you’re offended”


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”.

 

 

Comments

  1. mofa says

    This post has a number of problems. I will address one, the black face issue. Black-face may be viewed in the USA as a racist thing to do, perhaps because of some historical context, I don’t know , I am not American, but to paint ones face black to portray a black person to us in the rest of the world is not necessarily racist. If one wants to portray a famous character from history who happens to have a mustache, one may put on a false mustache. If one was trying to portray Harpo Marx one might put on a blond wig and wear a long overcoat. If one was trying to portray Michael Jackson one may decide to paint ones face black or white depending on which Michael Jackson one was wishing to portray. To be offended by ‘black-face’ when no racist commentary is relayed and when no racism is involved is absurd. Simply painting your face black and putting on a curly wig is not automatically racist. When racism is thought to be occurring it is most times not the actual act that is itself racist but the intent behind it. A golliwog doll is not racist just as a barbie doll is not racist…but there will be some who argue that they are- these dolls are just exaggerated depictions of certain types of human beings. I love Stephen Fry’s quotation, and may it be used liberally.

  2. =8)-DX says

    Yes… I’m actually moving off the “you’re offended at X, so what?” stance to: “are you actually being harmed by X? Do you have a right to expect people not to do X?”

    Muslims have the right not to have bacon thrown at them, have people obey their house-rules in their places of worship. They don’t have the right to censor an artist creating a bacon sculpture, writing about bacon or stop other people buying and eating bacon.

    “Offense” is relevant when rights are being imposed on or people are being harmed.

  3. Drolfe says

    I love that the first comment on this post is a dipshit defending blackface.

    A good rule of thumb here would have been “Would Stephen Fry issue a public statement defending blackface and racist dolls?” And after reaching the most probable conclusion shutting up instead.

    White supremacy is a world wide problem so the old “it’s not racist in Europe” is total bullshit.

  4. John Horstman says

    That understanding might lead you to conclude Fry’s response, as per blasphemy laws. But it should be conclusion, not reaction.

    QFT.

  5. Tauriq Moosa says

    @1 Mofa

    >> This post has a number of problems.

    Which are?

    >> I will address one, the black face issue.

    Only one?

    >> Black-face may be viewed in the USA as a racist thing to do, perhaps because of some historical context, I don’t know , I am not American, but to paint ones face black to portray a black person to us in the rest of the world is not necessarily racist.

    Thanks for taking the time to read the post where it indicates this happened in South Africa, where I live, where the legacy of apartheid continues. It means a lot that you can speak on my behalf as “us in the rest of the world”.

    >> If one wants to portray a famous character from history who happens to have a mustache, one may put on a false mustache. If one was trying to portray Harpo Marx one might put on a blond wig and wear a long overcoat. If one was trying to portray Michael Jackson one may decide to paint ones face black or white depending on which Michael Jackson one was wishing to portray.

    Yes, this is totally the same thing as the group who historically oppressed non-whites with caricature, culture, law, etc., dressing up as one of the groups they oppressed, exacerbating caricatured features. I’m glad things are so easy to equate in your world. Also this wasn’t a particular person, but a caricature of an identity that was oppressed by the very “group” who historically oppressed that group. I don’t quite understand what’s so hard to grasp about what’s wrong with this.

    >> To be offended by ‘black-face’ when no racist commentary is relayed and when no racism is involved is absurd.

    The racism is conveyed in the blackface itself, the caricature that mocks physical attributes of the group who historically was oppressed. Seriously: why is this hard to understand?

    >> Simply painting your face black and putting on a curly wig is not automatically racist.

    Asserting something isn’t racist doesn’t make it NOT racist.

    >> When racism is thought to be occurring it is most times not the actual act that is itself racist but the intent behind it. A golliwog doll is not racist just as a barbie doll is not racist…but there will be some who argue that they are- these dolls are just exaggerated depictions of certain types of human beings.

    And your proved the point you dismiss. Eh??

    >> I love Stephen Fry’s quotation, and may it be used liberally.

    What an awesome, non-nuanced and complicated-free world you live in where we toss around Fry’s quotation out of context and where it might be unhelpful. How very brave and progressive of you.

  6. Tauriq Moosa says

    @2: =8)-DX

    >> “Offense” is relevant when rights are being imposed on or people are being harmed.

    Yes.

  7. Tauriq Moosa says

    @3 Drolfe

    While I agree the first comment makes a silly point, I’d appreciate not name-calling as per my comment policy!

    The rest of your comment makes a great point.

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