On Taking Offense/Being Offended

Maybe it’s just my little corner of the internet, but lately a lot of the conversation online seems to center around being offended: when is it appropriate to get offended, is there such thing as being too offended by an offense, being offended that other people are offended, etc. Honestly, I’m not sure I get it, because the criteria for my being offended seems to be different from everyone else these days. Is it my logic that’s wrong? Or is the emotion that people are feeling being mislabeled as offense, when it’s really something else?

To illustrate, let’s say I’m doing my own thing, but just because I happen to be a female on the internet, one day I get a comment like this:

“Stupid b****! A woman obviously wouldn’t understand this (no ofence), get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!”

Now, that’s clearly offensive, right? Well…it’s certainly unpleasant, but frankly, I think calling it offensive is giving the speaker waaaaay too much credit here. In order to be offended, I need to have enough respect for the speaker that I can be outraged/aghast that they can even think such a thing. However, in this case my opinion of the person who makes a comment like the above couldn’t be much lower; they can’t offend me, because I don’t respect them enough in the first place for taking offense to even be an option. Taking offense is like giving them credit for being anything but completely beneath a reasonable human being’s notice.

It would be like taking offense when a three-year-old calls you a “Poopy Head.” Yes it’s an insult, yes there was even some intent to hurt your feelings there, but…it’s a three-year-old. What do you expect?

In many cases, to me the so-called offensive thing du jour is so banal, so stupid and backward, that taking offense to it is lending it a legitimacy it really doesn’t deserve. You can think the opinion is dead wrong, and say as much, but that’s different from being offended; being offended requires a level of emotional investment, and you can’t have that without caring what the other party thinks. Personally, I just don’t care what idiots think — because, well, they’re idiots — so I can think they’re simply wrong without feeling any of that righteous rage inside.

But of course, not everyone who says something potentially offensive is a complete mental troglodyte. Let’s take someone demonstrably more intelligent — someone like Orson Scott Card. Now, we know the man isn’t stupid; he’s written some great novels. He clearly has a capacity for complex, nuanced thought that our random internet misogynist has not displayed. So, since I completely disagree with his views on homosexuality, but respect his intelligence, does that mean I’m offended by his views?

Not really, because I think people like Card have an amazing ability to partition their minds in order to continue believing whatever regressive religious/social beliefs they have, no matter how intelligent they may be in other areas. I don’t know how they do it (and psychologically I’ll bet it’s fascinating), but they do. So while I have to respect Card on the subject of writing novels, I don’t respect anything he has to say on gay rights, or anything of that nature. I can’t be offended by his homophobia, because as far as I’m concerned, he’s basically an idiot in that area, and idiots gonna idiot. Frankly, I find his homophobia deeply sad, but again: that’s a different feeling from that hot-in-the-breast, “Wow, you’ve offended me now,” feeling.

All that said, I can much more easily see taking offense to Card’s statements, since at least there is some reason to have a baseline of respect for him; it’s the respect for statements on the level of the random internet misogynist from above that really baffle me.

I guess this could prompt the question, “Well gee Karen, doesn’t anything offend you?” I mean, I guess it’s possible that I’ve cobbled together a narrow enough definition of what it means to be offended for my own personal use that it’s impossible to offend me, right? Well…I can see why it may seem that way. But not quite.

The quickest example that comes to mind is the continued use of the name “Redskins” for a football team. The speaker, in this case, is the National Football League. Now, I can be all “LOL I hate sports!,” and joke that I don’t respect football to begin with, but the fact is, I do respect the NFL as an institution: it involves thousands of people, millions if you include the fans watching. The fact that such a prominent organization can continue to use a racial slur as a team name, when it’s an organization I feel I have reason to respect, is legitimately offensive, and I believe I can understand why many people passionately want that name changed. I’m actually offended because there’s a gulf between my expectations, and the respected parties’ conduct.

Obviously, my point here isn’t that the Redskins team name is the only thing in the world that’s legitimately offensive; it’s about questioning what the criteria for being offended is, and if it’s changed in the public consciousness. If I don’t respect someone or something, they can annoy me perhaps, but not offend me: am I wrong there? And if I am wrong, then what am I missing out on by not being offended? Furthermore, am I just too miserly with my respect, and all these people running around being offended all the time are actually more generous human beings, because they respect everyone enough to be offended by them?

Or is it possible that “offended” has become a code for something else; a cypher that really means “I’m irrationally angry, because I don’t have enough self-confidence to determine whose opinion is worthy of my respect, but admitting I’m angry is like admitting weakness, so I’ll just say I’m offended instead?” Now, I can’t read minds, so I can’t know for sure. But I’m afraid this may often be the case, and it’s poisoning a lot of otherwise good discussions.

2 thoughts on “On Taking Offense/Being Offended”

  1. It doesn’t say anything in any dictionaries about having to meet certain criteria in order to be offended by something. If something made someone angry, irattional or upset, they’re offended.

    1. But if they’re irrational, that means they’re not thinking straight. If someone isn’t thinking straight, do I have to give their thoughts the same amount of respect I would to someone who is thinking straight? How could I?

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