“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.” Stephen Fry.
There are things we should all be offended by, because they are innately offensive: Injustice, cruelty, inequality of opportunity, abuses of power and system. We should be offended by people who refuse to listen to reason, ignore the evidence, act based on blind prejudice and who are driven by hate or destructive levels of greed. All too often we seem, collectively, to let this stuff pass us by in preference for taking offence over minor perceived slights.
The thing that has driven me most round the bend in the last few months, is people taking things personally, even inferring accusations that were not made, in order to justify taking offence and being unpleasant. The offended person takes the moral high ground. “You did this to me, therefore I shall harass, punish, lecture, shame and denigrate.” Never mind that the taking of offence was very much a personal process. Some of the problem is that we all hear different connotations in words. I might use ‘carefully’ to indicate ‘with care’ while someone else might hear that as ‘deceptively and wilfully misleading’. It drives me crazy because things that could have been resolved with a calm conversation are turned into epic, time consuming melodramas, to no one’s gain.
If we get on with the business of taking offence, standing up for ourselves and defending our corner, sometimes what that means is that we shut down conversation and the scope to hear something different. I’m not talking about scenarios where you’ve caught someone beating up orphans, but places of ambiguity. To take a recent example, a subset of people took ‘I do not like NaNoWriMo’ to mean ‘everyone who does NaNoWriMo is a useless piece of shit and should be fed to wolves’ give or take. It’s very hard to have a reasoned conversation with a person who just keeps shouting that you hate them and are totally unreasonable. But then, if what you want to do is shut down alternative takes, screaming ‘I am offended’ is a fantastic tool for silencing debate and dissent. It’s just that I don’t want to play that way and I don’t think it’s very helpful.
If someone has deliberately wronged us, revealing that we are upset by their behaviour puts a weapon in their hands. If you are dealing with someone whose deliberate intention is to wound and harm you, letting them see that you are offended is a gift to them. They learn where your buttons are. They may even enjoy your impotent floundering as you try to defend yourself. Making a fuss that you are offended may leave you wide open to future attacks.
However we feel is what we’ve got. Offence is something you feel, and it’s not a comfortable feeling, at that. We feel offended when we feel both attacked, and innocent. Something that matters to us has been threatened or violated in some way. Indignation is a likely response. Resentment. Anger. Sometimes these may be justified. Some things are truly offensive and need a robust response. Some offence is just because we are twitchy, insecure, feeling guilty or not liking the questions. A drawn breath, in which you consider what you’ve got before you start yelling, can make worlds of difference to the outcome.
If you’ve taken offence and followed through by taking umbrage, but the remark was made in all innocence and supposed to mean something else, anyway, you may never get to hear that. You might stomp out the space for being told you were not under attack. You may not get to hear that you are respected and valued, but may, in misplaced anger, undermine the respect you were trying to protect. I’ve seen that one done a fair few times. Taking offence where none was intended, you can create enmity where none existed. Massively defensive people who get angry at any imaginable slight do not tend to fare well with any human interactions. A calmer asking of ‘did you mean…?’ can resolve an issue without breaking anything at all. A little patience goes a long way. Dialogue can resolve those problems that never were and stop them turning into actual dialogue. Accepting other people may hold different views helps with this one, too. We should not be frightened by people thinking differently.
Based on where I’ve had problems with this, a lot of it seems to involve people who are both insecure and self-obsessed. If you default to assuming it’s all about you, then every joke, every criticism and complaint about anything will start to seem like some snide attack on your person. I had a few years of dealing with one of those; no matter what I said, it was me having a go at her. That ‘justified’ whatever kind of backlash she fancied, usually aggressive and unpleasant. It is all too easy to use ‘I am offended’ as a license to act in actually offensive ways. Some people will do that deliberately, because they are innately shitty, but if you’re just jumpy and insecure, you probably don’t want to turn into one of those, so it’s worth trying not to go there.
There is a difference between that which is offensive, and people choosing to take offence. The latter should not be a license to beat people up, and all too often, it is. The person who did not mean to offend you was probably on your side. As well not to alienate them. The person who meant to offend you will be delighted to know they hit home. Either way, a more measured response is more effective.