You’re Not as Offensive As You Think You Are
I’ve been studying Internet culture, and particularly offensive content on the Internet, for years. Although usually tied to political “debate” (I use that term loosely), the apparent increase in people being offended occurs across the board, as does the popularity of complaining about everyone’s sensitivity. Ironically, people seem offended that other people are offended, while other people seem pretty invested in making sure other people are offended, and then performing false outrage.
Part of the problem is that we can’t agree on what’s offensive. Statements like, “everyone is so offended by everything” (which amusingly include the speaker by definition) are meaningless because they fail to address whether or not the thing is actually offensive. It’s also a bit odd to complain about this when the vast majority of Americans definitely don’t want to outlaw saying offensive things. Even if they’re offended, most Americans take it in stride. Does it really matter, then, if people are offended?
It’s safe to say that those sharing the meme like the one below don’t even think that people should be bothered by offensive content. But it’s a little strange to expect people to simply change their response to something they find offensive in the name of being happier. It’s a weird mashup of Internet troll culture and positivity culture.
Despite this insistence that actually-nothing-is-really-offensive-or-okay-it-is-but-you-shouldn’t-be-offended-by-it, it’s become a game to try to offend people. The right, ever the defenders of freedom, including the freedom to be offended, seem particularly interested in this game, whether it’s wearing MAGA hats to Starbucks to try to piss off baristas (who actually don’t care) or pretending that every liberal who encounters them is immediately enraged by their presence (again, they don’t care).
After all, if you can claim someone is offended by something that you think isn’t offensive, you can claim moral superiority, even if they’re not actually offended.
Paradoxically, you’re saying the thing is offensive by attempting to use it to cause offense. More often than not, you’re wrong and the thing in question, whether it’s the American flag or your dumb joke, isn’t actually having the effect of offense.
Bizarrely, some people seem offended by things that aren’t actually happening. It becomes a point of pride to stand by something that you claim is offensive to other people. You’re saying that you have conviction and integrity, while others are simply weak. Again, it’s a performance designed to make you seem strong. Offense becomes a badge of honor.
Indeed, the act of causing offense has become a commodity, something that people use to legitimize their political views as well as something that boosts pageviews. But it goes beyond that. It also connects to our pop culture preferences and how that feeds into our sense of personal identity.
Consider the way we talk about recent franchise films with female and POC leads. The backlash from white male fans who accuse the films of being “SJW” sellouts includes their claims that the films have been reengineered for those ever-offended liberals. Rather than acknowledging that they’re offended by the casting choices, they deflect onto those “weak” leftists and claim that the changes were done to appease them.
That’s the shape of the culture war, which has been exacerbated by the Internet: those on the left are called “offended” and “sensitive” by those on the right. Interestingly, of all the nasty things I’ve heard the left say about the right, calling the right “offensive” or “sensitive” is not generally one of them. Rather, the left calls the right “stupid” or otherwise insults their intelligence. There isn’t a matched relationship between our respective claims regarding offense. When the left says something is offensive, it generally has to do with insensitive portrayals of underprivileged people — i.e. in books, movies, and TV shows. When the right says something is offensive, it generally has to do with their own personal identity or symbols thereof, such as Trump, guns, or the American flag. In short, conservatives seem to think offensiveness has to do with people and the markers of their identity (including jokes), while liberals seem to think offensiveness has more to do with works of pop culture.
It’s no wonder we can’t resolve our differences. And yet, all things considered, it seems like we’re not really getting offended by each other, but rather by social constructs we’ve made up ourselves.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.
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