Nothing happens when you’re offended; except when it does

I’m afraid I’m going to be political again; comes of hanging out in social media too much in a U.S. election season.

The other day on the Face Book, someone posted some version of this:

along with a little essay about political correctness, and how trigger warnings are censorship, and how kids these days are so thin-skinned that no one can say anything anymore, and so on.

I posted a comment disagreeing, and got (and this is very unusual for me) two different people that I like and respect texting me privately in the Face Book (which I always forget is even a thing) expressing surprise at my opinion.

I’ve been thinking about how to write down my thoughts on these subjects for some time, but without actually doing it. So I thought maybe I’d start with just the basic message of the video clip itself: that when you’re offended, it doesn’t mean anything, and nothing happens.

To first order, I agree with this. The mere fact that I’m offended by something doesn’t in itself mean anything.

But depending on why I’m offended, it may be a sign of something that is meaningful.

The implication of “when you’re offended, nothing happens”, and a thing that the comic up there says more or less right out, is that if someone’s offended, they should just suck it up, sit down, and shut up about it.

But that’s wrong. Words mean things. Words build things up, and wear things down. Structural oppression exists, and words are part of the structure. Sitting down and shutting up does not help us get to a more just society.

If enough people are offended by casual references to some stereotypical negative property of some oppressed group, and refuse to sit down and shut up, and other people stop making those references as often, a little bit of the structure of that oppression has been lifted.

If I’m offended because some comedian punches down for laughs, and I give that comedian poor reviews and recommend that people avoid him, maybe he, or his colleagues, will look for laughs somewhere else.

Or if I’m offended because people are no longer deferring to me because I belong to some privileged group, or because structural oppression that favors me is being questioned, and I complain about that, I both tend to look like an idiot, and to shed light on the privilege and oppression that I’m upset about losing, and even that helps us along toward justice.

If I’m offended because someone said “shit” instead of “poo”, well, probably I should sit down and shut up about it.  :)

So it depends. But also it matters.

Because sometimes, even often, people take offense because of the way they are impacted by injustices in society.

And that’s not nothing.

Maybe sometime in the future: Trigger Warnings, Why the Kids are Alright, and so on.

7 Comments to “Nothing happens when you’re offended; except when it does”

  1. Everybody always misses the real problem with being offensive, and I fear you have too (although I’m sure you know what I’m about to say is true).

    When you offend someone they stop listening to you. It’s not that they are being “politically correct” (whatever that imaginary idea is). It is that they have made themselves and their ideas less effective and less influential. From that perspective not being offensive is good political strategy, but there is nothing “correct” about it. It’s not that there is a correct way to be offensive. There is no right way to be offensive.

    Should people be forgiving of those who accidentally give offense? Yes. Should those who accidentally give offense pay attention to the effects of being offensive and endeavor not to? Yes.


    • Yes, that’s true as far as it goes; it’s a good argument for not being offensive if you actually want to communicate with people.

      I was thinking about it from the potentially-offended person’s point of view, and what it makes sense for them to do, which goes to a different albeit related place.

      Which is to say, there isn’t just one real problem with being offensive. :)


  2. I didn’t read your blog item quite that way, but that’s OK. If your focus really is that “that when you’re offended, it doesn’t mean anything, and nothing happens”, you appear to do a pretty good job of refuting the claim as you note that words really do mean something and that if enough people are offended it can result in meaningful change. I thought that, by the end, you did a pretty good job of establishing that if you’re offended it really does mean something and something may well happen. The social science literature often refers to the mechanism of something happening as “tacit negotiation”, which is important to the rules that govern our relationships and, more generally, the social systems we operate in, but you’ve just said that wasn’t your point, so I’ll change directions and focus instead on your “focus”.

    Being offended can happen for all kinds of reasons, but one a common issue associated with the reaction of being offended is that the offensive individual didn’t think enough of you to not be offensive; that you are important and don’t rate respect. There are traditions of research associated with this kind of personal reaction. One research tradition that seems quite relevant is one in which people are told, before taking an “test”, that they aren’t as competent as other students and they won’t do as well (or the opposite). This is, in a very real sense, a test of what we often call self-fulfilling prophecies, and the manipulation is often quite successful. In the most common outcome the test results are positively correlated with what people are told in advance. I’m not going to belabor this because I don’t think these studies have fully mapped the mechanisms involved, but one thing seems obvious enough. When you are offended something does happen to your thinking and that offense can have negative consequences for you.

    That’s probably a good reason to not be offended, but being offended isn’t something we do rationally. It’s an irrational emotional reaction. Bottom line, I don’t think you should be as hard on the people offended as you seem to want to be.


    • Yes, the personal and interpersonal and psychological aspects of offense are interesting also; I was most concerned in this post with the political aspects, as I tried to warn up front. :) I’m not sure what you mean by being hard on the people offended; I’m saying pretty much the opposite: that, contra the people who say (roughly) “who cares if you’re offended it doesn’t mean anything just suck it up”, being offended, and expressing that fact, can be a good and justified thing in various situations.


  3. Not sure if your blog is set up to allow HTML, but if so, this is how I react….

    — David Lybrand



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