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Is It So Bad to Be Offended?

I’m perpetually amused by the culture war and its chief weapon/symptom: offense. “Everyone’s so offended by everything,” say countless comments on George Takei’s Facebook page. However do we all function?

The accusation of offense comes from both sides. The right gleefully mocks attempts at curbing racially-tinged language or encouraging gender-sensitive language as “being offended.” Meanwhile, the left triumphantly points to conservatives’ shock over Starbucks cups and fury whenever a celebrity espouses left-wing views as evidence that the right is actually the offended group. In both cases, being offended is an undesirable state.

It’s curious, isn’t it, that we are more preoccupied with the state of being offended than the thing causing the offense. Perhaps that’s because to be offended implies a certain burden upon others; others must adjust their behavior to suit you. Others must validate you. When the right complains that “Happy Holidays” is offensive, they’re not actually offended by the words. They’re offended that you didn’t acknowledge their preferred holiday (usually Christmas). When the left complains that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is rape-y, they’re seeking validation that they, by not liking said song, are making the moral choice. Ultimately, when we complain about offense, we are hoping for others to validate our choices. Those who are offended, we characterize as weak or morally wrong.

Note that even when the cause is offensive, we place responsibility for being offended on the viewer/listener. “I know it’s offensive, but it’s just a joke/a symbol/a song/how things are,” says the right, while the left uses offense as a call to action: “If you’re not offended, you’re not paying attention.”

Even beyond the culture war, our society is quick to encourage unquestioning acceptance of artificial sentiment or egregious misuses of our resources. To be offended is to question the status quo, and we can’t have that. For example, we’re supposed to “let it roll off our back” if someone insults us. Why? Why is the responsibility on us to not be offended? I once had a friend who wasn’t too good a friend and frequently mocked me. I of course was offended by some of her comments. In one of our final fights, she said, “You are difficult to deal with. You take EVERYTHING so personally.”

Yes. I was “difficult” because I took her personal insults personally.

In our society, politeness and accommodation are powerful currency. We’re expected to take compliments, even backhanded or manipulative ones, we’re expected to express gratitude, even for terrible food and service, and to stray from either of these superficial approaches is a horrible faux pas.

We’re so used to this that we regularly say “Thank you” and “You look nice” as fillers in conversation, not genuine expressions. And because of this superficiality, when someone offends us, we feel a strong urge to smile and take it. Essentially, we enable our own bullying. And similarly, we’ve learned to accept offensive jokes and situations because being offended is considered weakness. And heaven forbid anyone be “sensitive” in a dog-eat-dog culture.

But what if offense is not such a bad thing? Is it really a sign of weakness to be bothered by a racist costume? Or feeling like your movie and music tastes are being used to paint a picture of you as a bad person? And especially if you’re a marginalized person, is it really unwarranted to feel like others are mocking you or institutions biased against you?

Let’s face it, offense happens. It’s natural and normal. The problem is that it’s been weaponized/commoditized. The right thinks that they need to offend the left and thinks that bumper stickers and YouTube videos will somehow achieve it. The left thinks that offense is something to collect and moral outrage is necessary to achieve the goals of social justice. (These generalizations are just for point of discussion, don’t get offended.) In a way, the culture war is simply the exchange of this precious resource, offense.

If we legitimized the state of being offended and stopped engaging in these rituals meant to hide or deflect our offense, we might find a path toward a less divided society. We might be better equipped to understand each other’s positions and be willing to look at and remove the offensive things and behaviors themselves, rather than focusing on or trying to engineer offense in others.

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