Meredith Speaks: On Being OffendedBy Merri Leston
‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.’
It seems to me that with such a lackadaisical approach to offense, it is Puck who would surely make an Ass of himself in modern day diplomacy. Offence is at the heart of every international incident; even the best of intentions cannot salve a slip of the tongue (or indeed of highly secure material to the Russians).
There is nothing objective about being offended – it is the most subjective measurement of propriety possible. And yet, it is offense that has the power to close borders, shut down dialogue and excommunicate others. But not all offense is made equal: being offended has consequences if the direction of power is upwards; indicative of some right or another that has been encroached upon. But being offended as a minority is nothing more than over-sensitivity. If offense is a case between the offender and the offended, who is our judge here? Why is the supposed ‘manifest destiny’ of Western morality superior? Why because we have disregarded a taboo is it warranted to discriminate against those who have not? Who am I, as a Western woman, to be offended at another cultural practice simply because it goes against my own personal code of conduct?
This willingness to suspend my own principles, at least in part, is an essential part of diplomacy. What I believe, however fundamentally, is not self-evident and is in and of itself of no higher value to the beliefs of others. Demonizing or derogating another with an ‘offensive’ belief does nothing for either party. It exacerbates the ‘us-vs-them’ culture that is so poisonous to international relations, and inflates feelings of superiority on both sides. But the crux of the matter is this: what is justice? Who is just? How do we determine what is ethics and what is mere opinion?
Offensiveness is part and parcel of living in a multicultural society; of course bringing together different cultures, practices and experiences is going to cause a little friction. Indeed, offense can be a valuable tool of knowing when we have gone too far – when the beliefs and principles we hold dear are questioned or disrespected. In this regard offense can be good for us, as with any challenge. At best, being offended is an invitation for us to grow, to question our beliefs and dismantle dogma. At worst, being offended reaffirms who we are, secure that our beliefs are not straw men to be knocked over.
With this comes the distinction, I believe, between offense that is constructive and offense that is destructive. All innovation is offensive at first – an inconvenient truth, if you will. However, working through initial misgivings, and indeed initial discomfort, is essential for progress. Ignorance is bliss for the ignorant; innovation is misery for the innovator.
This constructive form offense is the beginning of a discussion; the destructive form of offense is its end. Being offended is not a means of exit or a valid point to be made when challenged. In the words of Stephen Fry: ‘I am offended by that’ in this context should only ever be met with ‘Well, so fucking what’. Offense is not truth, no thought or feeling is. When we evade offensive situations we can stifle innovation, we can stifle our own development and frankly, yes we can make snowflakes of ourselves.
There is an element of self-indulgence to this form of offense, almost to the degree of masochistic. Some seek to be offended, revelling in their judgment. ‘To read a 600 page novel and then say that it has deeply offended you: well, you have done a lot of work to be offended’ – indeed, Sir Salman Rushdie knows more about offensiveness than most.
And it is this train of thought that leads me on to religion – indeed no article on offense would be quite the same without it. The balancing of freedom of expression and freedom of religious practice and belief makes for a seesaw of motion sickness. It appears religion continues to play their ‘free pass,’ their ‘fig leaf’, of intolerance and yet face no redress. The potential of religion to be a force for tolerance and progress is enormous, and yet it continues to turn back to the past for guidance in how to face the future. Religion can be inflammatory, can be bigoted, can be backward and yet, it is lauded as morality. A crime is a crusade as long as we bash each other with bibles.
But in addition to being so highly offensive, it is the religious who are most easily offended. You would think the devout would welcome criticism as an opportunity for conversion. Surely God withstands all questions, or do they secretly fear God will ‘promptly vanish in a puff of logic’ as predicted by Douglas Adams? It seems to me it is the religious who should be most resilient to offense, and yet public discourse remains inhibited in case ‘heaven forfend’ we offend. ‘Je suis’ unamused.
However, I believe there is an ardent difference between the ‘get out clause’ usage of ‘offended’ above and the offense that comes at the expense of the safety of others. Terms such as ‘trigger warning’ and ‘safe space’ are frequently ridiculed, indicative of a generation unable to deal with the harsh realities of living.
But I say not so. To those who have not experienced trauma, who have not experienced the power of words to consume and dictate behaviour, such special considerations appear to bubble wrap the victim and inhibit intellectual discourse. But to the rape victim in a law lecture, the recovering anorexic reading a ‘diet special’ in Women’s Health Magazine, the alcoholic craving comfort at the mere sound of a bottle opening, these spaces, these warnings, allow them to take ownership over their vulnerabilities. To ridicule such space and enforce exposure is beyond insensitive – it is diabolical. In the same way that, by entering a safe space, these individuals are regulating their own ‘offendedness’, so too is it our responsibility to regulate our offensiveness.
I am not easily-offended, and I hope not easily-offensive. I maintain both instances have their uses but neither is a right and neither is truthful. Offense is a construct based on our experience, what offends is as personalized as a cobweb. Like said cobweb, what offends us is malleable, but such change does not come through the brute force of another but by patience and personal initiative.
A successful society is a respectful society, tolerant to difference and unafraid of change. We have an obligation to understand one another, not alienate each other. Offense is an opportunity, either as a window into each others’ perspectives or for change. But the intent to offend is the same as any other act that wishes to inflict harm; this is aggression and this is never commendable or defendable. Being offended is not an indication of weakness, or even conservatism, just as being inadvertently offensive is not an indication of poor character.
Resolution is born out of a difference of opinion, after all. Being offended can either guide us towards resolution or steer us far from it. The choice is ours.