Rants: On Taking Offense
When someone does or says something offensive, one thing that I never want to hear is that I should not be offended because they didn’t mean to be offensive.
There are roughly two sorts of offensiveness in this world: that which is intended and that which is unintended. In some ways the intentional offensiveness is easier to cope and contend with. If a person understands that what they do or say is offensive, even if they do it anyway, at least they are living in the same universe as you. They know that there are certain things that will push your buttons, and even though they have chosen to go ahead and push, they at least acknowledge that the buttons are there. It hurts to be the intended target of hurtful actions or words, but there is some degree of comfort in knowing that you’re starting from a common ground, and that you know where you stand with the offender.
Far worse in some respects is the offense which means well, because it doesn’t understand what has upset you. The person who offends unintentionally has missed something fundamental about the way in which you understand the world. The unintentional offender has made certain assumptions about you which are disturbing, or has a very different take on what is or is not appropriate which is discomfiting, or sees an entirely different reality from that in which you live, which is scary and isolating. Though the pain of being an intentional target is absent, it may be replaced by a more fundamental fear: that one of you doesn’t belong.
Now, if one was to advise the offended party not to lash out in anger, or not to hold on to or dwell on the feeling of offense, that is a different sort of counsel than not to be offended. Releasing hurt feelings nondestructively is simply good self-care. But sometimes it is also good self-care to allow oneself to be offended, especially when the offense was unintentional. Not allowing a bully the satisfaction of getting your goat, that’s one thing. But if, for example, a habitual racist makes a racist comment, not realizing that their speech constitutes racism, is it not appropriate, or even imperative, that one be offended? The same holds for homophobia and sexism. It is, indeed, sometimes the expression of offense which drives social change on the ground. If enough people are offended by unacceptable attitudes, those attitudes tend to fade as people become aware of the hurtful nature of their words and assumptions.
Is there such a thing as being too easily offended? Certainly there is. But who is to say where that line should be drawn? Being too easily offended means taking offense where it is inappropriate, where nothing is in fact offensive. What exactly should be the metric of such an assessment? Who has the right to say that a comment is not racist or that a behavior is not sexist, to draw the line between compliment and harassment? These are complicated questions to which I think no one really has a definitive answer. More often though, what is problematic is not the offense taken, but the way in which a person chooses to express that they are offended. It is important to note is that offense is not synonymous with vindictiveness. I am offended when certain folks insist loudly and persistently that I need to be paired up and married to a man as soon as possible. I am offended by the sexism and heteronormativity of their assumptions. Does it surprise me given the age and cultural demographic of most of the folks in question? Absolutely not. Will I respond by being nasty to them? Of course I will not. In many cases I will not even bother trying to explain that I find their well-intentioned sentiments offensive. To do so would likely be futile given the cultural milieux. However, having the cultural and emotional vocabulary to express offense, even merely to oneself, is far healthier than dragging oneself through a world in which one feels alien and unwelcome, internalizing and not allowing oneself to feel offended because the person who cannot or will not accept or acknowledge difference really meant well when they suggested that you should marry the creepy guy who won’t stop hitting on you because you’re getting old and every woman needs a husband before she’s thirty.
Offense needn’t mean anger, though sometimes anger is appropriate. Usually offense is a function of frustration, and usually it goes beyond the individual at whom it is directed. Insult is personal. Offense, more often, is cultural, and a reaction to an indication that the speaker’s worldview doesn’t include you or people like you. Sometimes, taking offense, whether it is expressed to the offensive individual or not, is an essential part of self-acceptance. This is who I am, and I damn well do belong in this world, whether you see me or not. I am not invisible, and I will not make myself invisible so as not to disturb your outmoded paradigm. As I’ve said before, I’m here, I’m me. I’ve got to get used to it… and so you’re gonna have to do the same. Cause I ain’t going away.
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