There’s a huge movement of conservative people (you know, the kind who like to bully other people into silence, and are anti “PC,” accuse us of throwing “temper tantrums” when we protest injustice, and want everyone to “toughen up.”) who love to tell people to stop being offended.
They adore that shit. “Stop being offended!” they holler. “No one cares if you’re offended! Our country is being taken down by these whiny liberals who are offended at everything!” I’ve even seen this argument used by people who should otherwise get it. (Stephen Fry is a big one here.)
Our human sense of being offended is vital to the smooth and cooperative operation of our society. It is the part of our mental processing by which we determine if a thing is acceptable or not acceptable, if it fits into our idea of what a decent world should be. It is the first step on the road to action against something.
We experience a thing (say, the major front runner of a political party who says he sexually assaults women by grabbing them by the pussy) and our immediate reaction is to find it offensive. It’s distasteful, it affronts our sense of what is acceptable in our society, the rules that most of us have agreed to live by.
Why does something cause offense? It’s not solely because we love to be morally outraged (Personally I could live very happily never being morally outraged again. It’s not a state to which I aspire.) but because the action itself has at its core something that runs counter to our ideas of how society should normally work.
When I am offended by your sexist comment it’s because I understand that unchecked sexist comments lead to sexist actions, which have led to a society in which women are routinely abused and sexually assaulted, denied full access to the world around them and denied participation in the institutions which set the official rules by which we live. I am not offended at the word “pussy”— because words can rarely be inherently offensive — I am offended at the meaning behind how it was used, which is that women exist not as real people, but only in order to serve the causal sexual and power-hungry needs of any random man who crosses their path. I am offended at the notion that anyone would violate another person’s body. Those things are morally repugnant—offensive.
The fact that I am offended by these things is a sign that I have a set of morals by which I live, and to which I expect other reasonable people to adhere. My being offended is the first part of a chain of events, ideally in which I feel something, I state my feeling, I ask the offender to stop, or explain why the action is offensive. How that turns out is anyone’s guess.
If I find it offensive that you spit on the sidewalk, that’s pretty much my personal problem to deal with. It’s not how I think people should live, but our society has determined it to be largely acceptable. I could start an anti-sidewalk-mucus brigade, but that’s not really an issue that I think needs a ton of energy thrown at it.
However, if I find it offensive that you grabbed me by the pussy I will take many actions, verbal, physical and legal, by calling the police and having you prosecuted for sex crimes. Our society is at a strange turning point where this is a thing that is technically illegal, but is also commonly overlooked, excused and tolerated.
Everyone agreeing that this is intolerable is what will change public perception, so that one day sexually assaulting someone will be as unthinkable to us as cannibalism.
But societal change cannot progress without me first analyzing what is happening around me and running that against my ideas of things that are acceptable and not acceptable to me. Being offended is part of a mental process, and an important one.
Are we all going to be offended by the same things? Of course not. Some people are still running around being offended by other people’s private sex lives, or inter-racial couples. It’s up to us collectively to agree on what’s offensive and what’s not, and that will change constantly. But the state of being offended by some things, any things, is a sign that your brain is on and synapses are firing. It’s up to you to ponder which things are offensive to you and why, and figure out what you’re going to do about it.
I do argue that the state of being offended is not enough, if you really want to effect change. Being offended first and then taking action is what is needed. But NOTHING happens if someone is not first offended.
Do not let sneering conservatives shame you out of being offended. Don’t let them take simple descriptive words that we use to define things and turn them into insults, to stop you expressing yourself. If you’re offended, you’re processing, you’re making moral decisions, you’re fucking alive and engaged. Hang on to that.
You will notice that this post has nothing to do with St. Louis, specifically. Given recent events I’ve decided that I must use any platform at my disposal to amplify my voice. If you disagree with me and this is not what you signed up for – see you later.