On Taking Offense
As both an author and amateur stand-up comic, I, perhaps more so than most, try to keep keenly aware of what’s ‘Offensive.’ But, unlike most, I do so to push the envelope of what’s acceptable. I’m the guy standing on the railing leaning over to get a good look at how far it is to the bottom, instead of the people clinging to the wall for safety.
It’s here, toeing the line, where some of the most interesting characters, stories, and jokes are written, because it’s exactly this territory that ‘polite’ people do their best to avoid talking about. I believe that means a lot of very important things would otherwise go unsaid.
So it is from this perspective that I would like to comment on Taking Offense.
There is an assumption, common among nearly every segment of society regardless of political affiliation, that when someone, somewhere is offended by something said, written, tweeted, painted, or otherwise communicated, whether intended for public or private consumption, that the fault and responsibility for the transgression lays entirely with the person who wrote, spoke, or otherwise put the offending statement out into the universe. The intentions behind the statement are inconsequential, even if they were misinterpreted or taken out of their proper context. The expectation then is for the “Offender” to immediately apologize publicly, accept that they are a deeply flawed and/or troubled human being, and resign-to-spend-time-with-their-family, or go into some sort of counseling program to help them cast out their demons.
Where else in the social contract are a person’s intentions not part of the equation? Even if you do the worst thing imaginable and kill another human being, your intentions matter. You can see this to be true based on the fact suspects aren’t actually charged with “murder” per se. Instead, the DA in a murder case weighs things like 1st Degree Intentional Homicide, 2nd Degree Homicide, Manslaughter, Negligent Homicide, or even Justifiable Homicide. All of these spring from the same action, one person killing another. But where they are different is the intention and mindset of the suspect. And, depending almost entirely on this mindset at the time of the killing, the suspect can face punishment ranging all the way from the death penalty, to walking away free without even being charged with a crime in the first place.
So where is this logic when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of causing offense? Certainly no one died, otherwise they wouldn’t be standing there demanding an apology in the first place. And I think we can all agree then that since causing offense isn’t as big a deal as killing someone, that perhaps we should look at metering how we dole out punishments for this transgression as well.
The other thing about the way we deal with offense that bothers me is how one-sided the baseline assumption is. How can responsibility lay entirely with the person making the statement, when ‘taking’ offense is itself an action? It simply isn’t realistic for everyone, at every moment, to be able to accurately guess how every word they utter will be interpreted or misinterpreted by anyone who may hear or read it, especially in an age of such hyper-connectivity.
For example, I use Google Analytics to track this site’s usage. I’ve had people from as far as Singapore and Pakistan read some of the brain scrapple I’ve greased up and shot out there. There is no way, no way at all for me to understand every nuance of language and culture that might lead to someone on the other side of the country, much less the other side of the world, to find something I said offensive.
If that should happen, I’m expected to simply accept whatever the receiver’s interpretation of my words may be, and apologize, as though they are the world’s foremost expert on my inner thoughts and motivations. Well, I’ll tell you right now that should that happen, and my intentions are not taken into account, my response will not be an apology, but a hearty “Go fuck yourself,” a concept that I hope transcends any linguistic or culture divide that may separate us and successfully convey my desire that this time you really are offended.
Why? Because communication isn’t a one-way street. How the recipient chooses to interpret the content of a message is just as crucial for successful communication to take place as the sender’s intentions for it. The expectation, nay, demand that the viewpoint of the person who takes offense trumps the person who gave it is ridiculous and absolves listeners of their responsibility to the conversation. It gives them a free pass not to even try to understand, or in many cases deliberately misunderstand, what was said.
And before anyone digs out the pitchforks I’m sure many of you delicate flowers have stacked up in the basement for exactly this occasion, I’m not saying that it’s never okay to take offense. Often times, it is exactly the right thing to do, and handled properly can further along understanding and expand important conversation. However, what I AM saying is that understanding must go both ways if it’s to really take root. Consumers of media, art, literature, comedy, etc, have just as important a job in trying to see where the speakers are coming from as they do in trying to understand why your background and experiences make you feel the way you did about a book, a joke, a piece of art, what have you.
Take that responsibility seriously, and maybe you’ll find people are a lot more willing to meet you in the middle.