There’s a word I’ve seen thrown around a lot in recent years. That word is “offended”.
I’m sure this word used to mean something. I’m sure if we run to the dictionary we can find the original archaic definitions, and think “ah, that’s what it means!”
But those meanings hardly reflect reality as it is now. A one-line definition in a dictionary isn’t much use when a word represents a concept, and that concept is underpinned by culture, and context, and society and millions of people using it every day in countless situations.
Meaning-is-use, as Wittgenstein might say if pressed for a sound-bite – so how is it used?
If you see “offended” written down anywhere on the internet in 2015, its usage and context more likely mean:
“You there, shut up. You shouldn’t have a voice in this! Stop challenging me!”
Because rarely, if ever, does the phrase “you’re just offended” actually mean that the targeted person possesses the property of “offence”.
Let me illustrate, and boil it down to the simplest of examples.
Person A: “Fucking trannie-fags, amiright? What’s’ with them? Grown men pretending to be chicks. Eugh.”
Person B: “You know, that’s really demeaning to trans/trans* people for no other reason than they’re different to you. You really shouldn’t say that sort of thing since it makes their lives worse.”
Person A: “Oh, MY GOD! What is it with you people being OFFENDED ALL THE TIME?!”
It’s there to de-legitimize an argument. To reduce and trivialise an objection, no matter how valid, by painting it just as “offence”.
And that’s without getting into the “it was just a joke” defence; an equally insipid defence used by idiots to justify themselves. It’s strange that the “ha-ha-bonk” attributes of someone’s speech are only ever brought up after the fact, but there you go. “Have a sense of humour!”, and “It was a joke!” usually come as a knee-jerk response (shame it rarely works both ways). The “just a joke” defence usually fits the pattern, but a more thorough treatment of that is also something for another time.
Further to this pattern, if this kind of exchange goes on long enough, you’re bound to see the following quote (mined) from Stephen Fry. You’ll see this, sure as day follows night, sure as eggs is eggs, sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shit:
It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that,” as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be repsected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?
Given that, at the time, Stephen Fry’s quote on “offence” was in the context of anti-blasphemy laws in Ireland, freedom of speech with the background context of religious persecution, and also given that Stephen Fry is openly gay, and also openly battling mental illness, it’s pretty clear that he isn’t talking about defending your right to be an utter prick to people for no other reason than because you can.
As much as I am a fan of Stephen Fry, the national treasure that he is, that quote out-of-context has done way more harm than its in-context poignancy ever did any good. At worst, I could accuse him of utter hypocrisy as he’s usually the first to throw a wobbly and leave Twitter, never to return, upon hearing any slight against him… But this is getting beside the point.
The o-word is simply trotted out to shut people up – it just dismisses someone’s views as “offence” and therefore, as Stephen Fry said, “so fucking what?”
To me, that’s just plain lazy thinking. It’s an excuse to avoid thinking about and self-reflecting on one’s own beliefs, ideas and speech – as if to say “You’re just offended, so I’m not going to bother understanding your criticism”, and it says it regardless of the validity of that criticism. Self-reflecting on whether the words you say contribute to a wider stigma, or whether your behaviour is making the world worse, is a vital part of growing up. And you don’t do that simply by dismissing your critics as merely “offended” by your position.
“You’re just offended” skips whether the only thing at stake is if someone is merely “offended”. It discards the actual opinion and goes straight towards “but you shouldn’t have any special rights for feeling that way” and “I therefore won’t pay attention to you”. And that’s really the core problem – in skeptic jargon you can call it a “straw man” argument. It boils down quite a complicated series of objections to a simple, and unrealistic, version that is easy to knock down.
(Of course, it’s very good to phrase it with skeptic jargon, as self-defined skeptics do this frequently when they refuse to engage with active social issues and instead want to simply debunk homeopathy for the millionth time. “Oh you’re just offended” comes from those with self-declared intelligence as it does from the more-broadly ignorant.)
Mostly, however, no. Stephen Fry is quite factually wrong in his quote – as are the people who bring it up as they build their dismissive straw man. It’s not all that common to hear people say “I’m rather offended by that” – or anything remotely similar. Very rarely is anyone ever actually just offended by uncouth and unthinking remarks.
Do you even recognise what “offence” is?
Did you bother to check if someone was actually offended, first?
Or are you using it just for the connotations of “offence”, so that you can dismiss a view without further question?
Let’s put it another way:
- Am I offended that rape victims get treated like shit, and told that they deserved what they got for dressing the wrong way? Fuck no – I am fucking livid that this is a thing.
- Am I offended that Britain First gets away with treating Muslims like shit and want to boot them out of the country? Nope, I think it’s an affront to human intelligence that such people are supposed to get respect for their idiot opinions.
- Am I offended that someone says “cockfag” and uses “gay” to mean “bad”? Christ no. I think you actively equating a demographic of people with negativity causes actual factual harm to people, and that should be enough to curb that behaviour because we all should make the world better, not worse.
- Am I offended that you shoved your able-bodied ass into a disabled parking space? No, I think you’ve just made life worse for someone who can barely walk who will be along in ten minutes for no other reason than because you’re a self-indulgent asshole.
- Am I merely offended by… well, anything that has been cast as “offence”?
No, I’m not. In fact, I think it’s pretty difficult to offend me. If I – and countless others – tell someone that they’re talking out of their arse, it won’t be due to mere offence.
The reality is that “offended” means nothing today. It’s simply a cheap and easy way for people to dismiss the valid opinions of others, to continue to unthinkingly treat Others like shit. When we want to finally say “enough, e-fucking-nough!” to this, it’s trotted out to dismiss the complaint. It’s an excuse to continue on with an unthinking lack of self-awareness. It’s a quick, thought-terminating cliché that absolves you from taking criticism seriously.
Maybe someone believes that I feel offended by what they say and think. So I’ll end this with a far more accurate word, as language can have some power when it’s laconic. It’s not offence, it’s more like pity.
I’m not offended that you think that, I pity you for it.