This is offered as the flip side to my recent post on being offended. How and when do we cause offence? Why do it, and what do we do around it?
There are times when offending people is both good and necessary. I think that people who are stuck in a smug cocoon that makes them oblivious to unpleasant realities need offending now and then, to shake them out of their stupor. More specifically, people need reminding about unpleasant things they would prefer to pretend didn’t exist. This usually causes offense, and to do that deliberately is to be knowingly offensive.
The easiest way of offending someone is to call them over behaviour or speech that you don’t think is ok. I challenged a local politician recently because he called me ‘deluded’ for disagreeing with him. Not cool. Manifestations of prejudice need calling out, as does abusive behaviour. The difficulty is that people don’t like having it suggested they messed up, no matter how diplomatic you are about it. Taking offence is often a reaction against that which is offensive, but you can get into some unhelpful loops there.
I find if I want to get a person to rethink, it is best to call them out privately, so as not to add the barb of public humiliation. Not having an audience improves the odds of getting a rethink. If I don’t think there’s much hope of getting change but I want to make it clear that I do not support or condone, I’ll do it publically. It is very important not to let offence go unchallenged, because if we do not speak against what we find unacceptable, we are tacitly supporting it. People who behave in shitty ways are offended if this is challenged. I have no qualms about offending anyone on those terms, but it’s really important not to abuse that power to speak out.
I’m very conscious that many people who offend do so for the pleasure of causing pain, out of a sense of superiority, prejudice or just being too ignorant to realise there’s a problem. Much sexism can occur this way, with people not even recognising the inherent sexism in their assumptions. No one asks a man with children how he expects to ‘have it all’ or to ‘juggle both roles’ while working women get asked that all the time. Calling people on accidental, cultural and ignorance based offensiveness can work. The people who get a kick out of hurting people will just enjoy the attention, will claim victimhood, and keep stomping their feet.
My yardstick is this – who has the power here? Who can make choices? Causing offense is an attack on someone. Am I dealing with someone who has a lot more power than me, and who can therefore be expected to take it? Am I lashing out in anger at someone far less powerful than me who will probably be damaged and further set back by this? I am mostly likely to go on the offensive when I see someone themselves being offensive. What I get angry about is people acting offensively towards those who have less power. As Naomi flagged up the other day, picking on vulnerable, disabled people isn’t ok.
As a Druid, one of my weapons of preference is satire. I like laughter as a form of attack, not least because it’s very effective. Laughter takes away power, undermines pomposity. It is the weapon of the weak against the strong. When we turn it around and use it to trample on those we’ve already crushed, it is a hideous thing.
Of course we all get angry about things. We get angry with people. We see things that make us want to respond in kind, or go further, or do more, or worse. Two seconds of breathing in to ask what it will achieve. Two seconds of breathing out to ask if this person has more or less power than you. Are you poised to kick someone who is already down? Are you looking at the real source of the problem, or the easy scapegoat? Are you blaming unfairly? Are you holding someone responsible for something they had no power over? Are you being hypocritical? Are you transferring your own failings onto someone else? Check. Check again.
Some situations are really easy. I see politicians blaming the poor for being poor, while passing fat deals to their chums. The politicians have power, the poor do not. It’s easy to see where to stand. In less abstract, more personal situations it can be harder. One thing I know for sure is that if I’m going to offend someone, I want to do it consciously, deliberately and for good reasons. I have no desire to cause accidental offence. I want to know and I want the chances to fix it if that happens, and that means I also have to consider that other people’s offense may have been accidental, too. I find an apology goes a long way to clarifying that one.