5 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Being Offended
A few weeks ago, the video game cartoonists over at Penny Arcade realized that they'd gone too long without talking about rape and decided to start talking about rape again. Or they just had an innocent off-the-cuff moment and accidentally brought up rape again, and in predictable Internet fashion, it's been blown out of proportion with a good old-fashioned clusterfuck. The thing that bothers me isn't about what's true, false, right, or wrong -- it's that this entire conversation about offensive stuff has completely stalled out, because people have forgotten that ...
You Can't Talk Someone Out of Being Offended
Also known as "Calm down, it's just a joke."
When I accidentally piss someone off, my knee-jerk reaction is to try to reason that pissed-offedness into not existing. And I'm not alone: The Penny Arcade guys did it with mockery, and one of your friends will do it tonight after they forget that "You Jewed me" hasn't been an OK thing to say for like 50 years, or ever. The problem is that this strategy doesn't make any more sense than trying to talk someone out of diarrhea.
"Before your colon makes a decision, I have a PowerPoint presentation I'd like it to take into consideration."
Scientists call the feeling of being offended a narcissistic injury, and it's as uncontrollable as crying after you've had diarrhea in front of your first and last date with the woman you've secretly loved your whole life.
Trying to reason your way out of having pissed someone off is a natural urge, because it's rooted in trying to fix a mistake. No sane person wants to feel like they're the source of someone else's pain, so it's a means of shifting the blame off of ourselves. "I can't believe you turned my innocent joke into something dark and evil." We didn't mean anything cruel, so no one should be upset -- only there is no situation in the world where what we mean to do is more important than what we did. If the world really functioned like that, we all would've aced every test in high school (we meant to give the right answers, right?). Good intentions mean exactly dick if you're too incompetent to do anything with them. For example, I hear this was supposed to be a movie:
Oh, they sucker-punched ticket buyers! I get it now.
Basically, if you fart in your roommate's mac and cheese, all the explanation in the world ("You surprised me! It's a survival instinct!") isn't going to make their dinner taste any less like butt. Someone's dinner is ruined, and you're going to have to address it.
But just in case you're the one with the bowl full of stinky pasta, you'll need to remember that ...
You Can't Force Someone to Be Offended (And You Shouldn't Try)
When we talk about whether a comic is offensive, we're not actually talking about the comic -- we're talking about the people who were offended by it. They're the ones who matter in this discussion. Without their offense, there is no conversation, which is likely how The Family Circus slipped under the radar for so long. Except for that one strip where they adorably endorsed human trafficking and military torture.
If I could get all personal and real for a second (and I can!), I'd admit that the "dickwolves" comic doesn't offend me. But I'm not going to explain why, because that very fact means that my emotional reaction to the comic doesn't matter. When I first realized that, it irritated me, because I like to think I matter a lot (there's a reason I chose gold instead of brass for the statue of me I erected in my living room). But once I saw the whole picture, I realized that it's pretty liberating.
So I put on my sundress and went for a frolic.
We're not the hive-mind buggers from Ender's Game -- our brains exist independent of each other, and we are allowed to be pissed off by something without anyone else's approval. That's kinda great, right? No one can tell us what to feel. Well, maybe Adele, but it has to be raining first, her haunting vocals forever tainting my memories with the mental whiff of my poop date. Sorry, I drifted for a second. What was I talking about?
Oh, yeah -- we're never going to all agree about what's offensive, because "offensive" isn't a measurable trait. No matter how much we pore over the psychology of humor or the syntactic structure of jokes, we'll never find a shortcut because there is no dowsing rod that we can plunge into a joke to find out if it's funny or unfunny or benign or offensive. All we can do is constantly pay attention to how other people around us are reacting and use that information to not be an asshole.
This face means you fucked up.
Sure, it's a lot of work, but in exchange you get to have relationships with other humans that aren't based on yelling and crying. Which ... I mean, that's usually pretty OK, because some of them know how to fix my computer.
It's Pretty Rude to Get Offended for Someone Else
First of all, let me be absolutely clear that it's good to stand up for other people, even when it's just casual stuff. If your friend keeps shouting "Fag!" whenever you get on Xbox Live together, feel free to punch him in the nuts or just unplug his wireless router and let the apoplectic gamer-rage eat precious years off the end of his life. That's justice, right there.
What's not OK is using everything you see as an example to explain why people who aren't you might get offended by stuff, because again, you're not talking about the people who were offended (the only ones who matter, remember); you're talking about a hypothetical group that exists only in your imagination. You're making it all about you, and you may not have the necessary perspective. In short, you're talking out of your ass to create controversy. You've effectively become every cable news program.
"Saving that cat's life just normalizes the stereotype of helpless kittens, you asshole."
I used to work in a high school, and I attended a lot of events, because high schools love events the way celebrities love using rehab as a form of apology. At one of these events (I don't remember what it was -- a wet T-shirt contest? I dunno; I was drunk), I was seated in front of two young women who were loudly talking about how racist this particular event was, until an elderly black woman seated behind them leaned forward and, with that infinite dignity and majesty that some old people just have, said, "Excuse me, I'm sorry, could you please shut the fuck up?"
Maybe the women were right about the event, but the elderly woman behind them didn't give a shit because she was there to see the kids, not listen to pompous 20-somethings show off the stuff they learned at their Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites meeting.
"Let's end racism by putting our members' race at the forefront!"
Obviously, that doesn't mean that you can't talk about offensive stuff unless you're offended. Cracked has done some great articles on this topic. But we're not grabbing those sexist comic book and video game characters and shoving them in women's faces and telling them to stop enjoying the stuff they like. We're just pointing out terrible things and laughing at them. Because we're fundamentally deranged individuals, and there's no helping us.
Being Offended Doesn't Always Matter
Or: "Why do you think it's OK to make fun of bronies? Would you make fun of gay people? No."
That's a real private message I got on the Cracked forums in reference to an article I didn't even write, which points to at least four different tiers of incompetence. And even though this guy's feelings are valid on account of him feeling them and all, I don't care. Because sometimes, your feelings -- or your "feels," which I guess is something annoying people say now -- aren't important to anyone other than you. My poop date didn't care about my embarrassment any more than I cared about her reactionary vomit.
That sounds harsh, but it's also a totally necessary thing to acknowledge. People can be offended by anything -- it just takes having a personal experience. Let's say, hypothetically, you were beaten up by a badly jaundiced bodybuilder when you were a child. You're probably not gonna like that scene at the end of The Avengers where the Hulk rearranges Tony Stark's tiling with Loki's face.
I'm offended by how many deviantART drawings of the Hulk's penis I saw while digging up this image.
That's such an arbitrary and unique experience that there's no way to count it against the film's creators. Unless, hypothetically still, jaundice is a serious problem in your community? And roid rage? And somehow those problems are linked -- let's say by Gypsy magic? Then you could say that it was irresponsible to include that scene, because it's normalizing the well-documented societal ill of jaundiced Gypsy roid rage. Also, sorry for saying "Gypsy" so much. Hopefully I didn't offend any Gypsies or Stevie Nicks.
Your feelings and whether anyone should care about them are two different things. Men's rights activists can get mad about how society has broken its promise to award them a hot lady friend, but I'm never going to care, because I've done enough research and lived enough life to know that being a man is way easier than the alternative. I appreciate the fact that I've never had to mace anyone or been harassed for walking around outside in hot pink booty shorts, although that second thing may have more to do with living in Seattle.
This is the most safe-for-work picture I could find of my neighborhood.
It's not about whether the offended people or the unoffended people are "right"; it's about whether the reason the people were offended matters. How do you determine that? That's not a rhetorical question; I'm seriously asking. See, this is a case in which the discussion is every bit as important as the answer, because ...
It's Really Good for Us
Caring about other people's feelings isn't just the difference between being a dick and not being a dick -- it's central to our progress as a species. I mentioned earlier that I didn't care about the offended brony guy's feelings, and that's sort of the point: Empathy is evolution in progress. We're just not quite there yet.
Everything that separates us from other animals -- the ability to change positions mid-coitus, being ashamed of our body odor, tabbing out of StarCraft II to check our pizza order without screwing up our build -- is built on our ability to understand abstract concepts -- to imagine things that aren't real and then create them out of bamboo, then steel, and eventually an incredibly nuanced pattern of ones and zeroes that allows us to show Laurence Fishburne our kung fu.
"Get over here so we can discuss the cyclical nature of suffering and violence."
But what could be more abstract than imagining what it's like to be another person, feeling something totally different from what we're familiar with? Most of us have trouble figuring out why our crazy younger brother went vegan and got a band tattoo, let alone understanding the thoughts and motivations of thousands of people with completely different backgrounds that we've never even met. Maybe the fact that empathy is so difficult is why it is such an important professional skill to learn, and why it still has some glitches that we're working out, like when we turn it off and murder a bunch of people.
Cracked Fact: Most people don't like getting murdered. Like, a shocking amount.
What I'm saying is that empathy is humanity's next big thing to get really good at, and having those conversations (not just slinging accusations) is an integral part of that. An offensive joke in a comic strip isn't the same as a war crime, obviously. But figuring out why it pissed off so many people is a great opportunity to develop a skill that will someday be just as expected and important as knowing to postpone a date when spontaneous shitting is inevitable.
J.F. Sargent is writing a sci-fi adventure novel that you can read for free! He's also on Twitter and will help you write articles for Cracked if you join the Workshop.
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