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Telling It Like It Is - Being Offended

It has reached such proportions that posters and memes are created almost daily to spoof just how popular being offended has become. So I thought it might be a good exercise to actually break down what makes something offensive. In other words, when should you legitimately be offended?

Inherently Offensive?

First, for anyone to claim offense, the statement must inherently be offensive. If, for example, I describe a person by their colour, it is not inherently racist and should not cause offense. If I said that their colour made them somehow lesser than others, that IS inherently racist and it would be legitimate for someone to take offense.

Using a news feed as an example - if you read or heard these words from a news anchor:

"Police are on the lookout for a white male in his late thirties, who is wanted for a series of armed robberies ..."

These words are not inherently offensive because are used in order to provide information about the offender to assist in their apprehension, without including any judgement about what the information means. If someone then chooses to become offended on the grounds that the criminal's colour was referred to, ("They've labelled that person according to their race!") or that the gender was used, ("Oh ... they're suggesting that only males commit armed robberies!") or that the offender was in his thirties, ("These are the types of ageist comments that we need to stamp out!") they cannot claim to have a legitimate reason to be offended. But, change one small thing and watch how it changes everything ...

"Typically, police are on the lookout for a white male in his late thirties, who is wanted for a series of armed robberies ..."

The way this statement is worded suggests that the person's colour (or perhaps gender and age) are the reasons he committed an armed robbery, thereby throwing everyone of that colour into the "bad person" basket. This is inherently offensive.

Statistics are, by themselves, not inherently offensive. They become offensive when some form of judgement is attached to them. Consider this quote from Wikipedia ...

"The incarceration rate of blacks (African Americans) is more than three times higher than their representation in the general population."

This is a statistic that, on its own is not inherently offensive ... but it could be. How? Well, imagine that it was discovered that the statistic was extrapolated by a white supremacist from incomplete or skewed data for the purposes of highlighting his racist viewpoints. That would be offensive. True statistics cannot be offensive, but the way they're utilised can become offensive.

Offense Intended?

The second criterion you must satisfy is that the intention of the provider of the information was to offend. There are many, many times when comments are made based upon ignorance or a misunderstanding of the facts, even though the speaker has no intention to offend anyone. To use gender identity as an example, imagine if you met a person for the first time and had received no prior information about that person. The person appears before you as a male, with the physical qualities we normally associate with maleness (general size and shape, bone structure, facial and bodily hair, absence of noticeable breasts, timbre of voice etc.) If you were to refer to that person as a "he" it would be difficult to say that you are intentionally being offensive. If someone complains that you assigned a gender identity to that person without asking, that can simply be explained as an innocent error, not as an example of offensive behaviour. Of course, it would then become offensive if you were to constantly refer to the person by the "he" pronoun having been advised that this was not how they wished to be identified and offered an alternative pronoun. It is then obvious that you are purposefully being rude. To a degree, clumsiness of thought is excusable ("Oh, I'm sorry. I keep forgetting. Force of habit."), but that will tire as an excuse fairly quickly, which leads me to the next point.

Is Offense your ONLY OPTION??

If you find that you are offended by something that someone has said and have applied to first two principle to it (the statement was Inherently Offensive and the person was being Intentionally Offensive), you still have a choice as to whether or not to feel offended. It, like any other response to stimuli, is largely voluntary and controllable. You might choose, instead, to feel sad that the person is ignorant of the facts and could benefit from a more balanced viewpoint. You might feel pity that such ugly people exist ... and sometimes in large numbers. You might choose to feel philosophical about the situation and remind yourself that, for every ignorant, low-brow, rednecked Neanderthal there are a dozen intelligent, tolerant human beings.

Being offended is not a particularly healthy state of mind. It is oppositional, exclusionary and divisive. It vibrates on a lower frequency than does love and gratitude. So, for your own sake, try to consider the other ways you might respond to offensive information without yourself becoming actually offended.

Finally, being offended does not necessarily create change. Here's a quote (sans expletive) from Steven Fry about being offended ... "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 respected as a phrase. 'I'm offended by that.' Well, so f___king what?"

For those of you that seem to be offended regularly, look for better ways to create change AND maintain healthy relationships. Being offended doesn't necessarily do either. Cheers!!


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