A practical guide to being offended

Hello fellow Snowflakes! I have some important practical advice for you, but I’d like to offer this trigger warning first: I’m about to tell you that you’ve been doing something wrong for a very long time. And it may be something that you are emotionally attached to doing. Unfortunately, I’m going to tell you to stop doing it anyway. So brace yourself, and I promise I’ll talk you through it as calmly and carefully as I can.

You have to stop telling people that you’re offended by things.

Rough stuff, I know.

Now, I’m not the sort of person who says that people need to “toughen up”, nor am I the kind of person who pretends that words don’t have a real (and sometimes destructive) impact on society and people. In fact, if you really want to understand my position on things like political correctness, offense, and language, I’d recommend you check out some of the videos on my Youtube Channel that I’ve devoted to topics such as trigger warnings and the offensiveness of the word faggot, and some of my previous blog articles about people being offended by art or by religion.

But today’s article isn’t about me, it’s about you. You need to stop telling people that you are offended by things. I’m here to give you three very specific reasons why; then, I’ll tell you what you should be doing instead.

1. You might be a complete idiot

Before you fly into a rage over the heading, hear me out on this. I promise it will make sense.

I’m sure you know people who are bigots who get offended by stupid things. There are some Christians who are offended when someone wishes them a “happy holidays” in December. There are people who get offended if I hold my husband’s hand in public. There are people who are offended when someone says: “Hey, maybe having monuments that seem to adulate racists who fought on the losing side of the civil war is a bad idea.” Those people are idiots, and they shouldn’t be offended by those things; but they are.

You know you’re not an idiot, but not everyone in the world knows you. Not everyone in the world has a reason (yet) to believe that you’re not an idiot. So the simple fact that you feel offense isn’t by itself a good enough reason for those people to stop and take your position seriously.  For “I’m offended” to be an argument that holds any weight at all in someone’s mind, they have to enter the conversation with the assumption that you’re not one of those unreasonable people who gets offended at stupid shit.

You might say: “But I have good reason to be offended!”

If that is the case, then that is what you should say instead. Skip past saying “I’m offended” and dive right into just telling the person what the good reason is. After all: it is the reason, not the feeling of offense, that really matters.

2. You are demeaning your own cause

By saying, “I’m offended!” you are setting up your own emotional reaction as the first and foremost thing that is bad about what the person has said or done. Is that really what you want to do?

When a Fox commentator says, “Gay people only care about pop music and the beach,” it displays a massive ignorance of  gay people and the diversity and complexity of gay culture. It reinforces stereotypes in a way that completely trivialize important political issues that the LGBT community feels passionate about. It presents to the audience, who may very well accept at face value anything a “Fox commentator” says, a two-dimensional view of gay people that makes them out to be less than human, and therefore easy to dismiss. And therefore easy to discriminate against. It perpetuates a culture in which LGBT people are ignored, subjected to violence, and assumed to not be able to hold positions of public service or power.

Are you really saying that with all of those implications, the single most important thing to focus on about the statement is… your emotional reaction? Really?

When we are told that Michael Brown, who was shot dead by a police officer–assassinated with no trial and no voice for his view of what happened–was “no angel“, it is a symptom of a massively corrupt system of white supremacy that instantly demonizes the victim, perpetuating violence against African Americans and the silencing of those who fight for justice. It represents an utter contempt (and fear) that white police officers, white media representatives, and those who support them, have for the black community. It is an absolutely disgusting system of oppression that we have lived with in this country for so long most of (white) middle America is blind to it.

So when you hear the “no angel” comment about Michael Brown, is it really appropriate that the item you lead with, the thing you are saying it the most important problem to call out, is…. that you felt offended by it?

By focusing on “offensiveness” you are trivializing the issue you are offended about. You are shooting yourself in the foot.

Skip past your feelings: your lead response in situations like these should be to point out why these comments are harmful, what actual damage they cause to society.

3. It’s just lazy.

Of course, responding to an offensive remark by explaining the harm that the comment actually causes in the world is difficult. The explanation of why you feel offense, and why that offense is justified, rarely fits in 140 characters or less. So you cop out; you don’t want to do the work. You fall back on “That is offensive!” and hope that is enough.

It’s not enough. It’s lazy.

There is also a chance that you don’t always know why you are offended by something. That’s fine, and nothing to be ashamed of. Emotions are visceral, immediate things. It sometimes takes time for our higher cognitive functions to catch up, introspect, analyze, and figure out why we feel a certain way.

If that is the case, then take the time to do that.  You don’t need to reply immediately to every damned thing. Pause, figure out why you feel offended, figure out if it is justified, and then you are ready to respond: you can explain what the underlying problem is, which matters more than your feeling of offense anyway.


Conclusion: So what do I do instead?

If you’ve been reading along, you already know the answer.

I’m never going to tell you to not feel offended.  For one thing, policing people’s emotional reactions is stupid. For another thing, a feeling of offense often is an important piece of emotional data for us to consider. But you should take the time to introspect and examine it: think about what actually upset you about a given situation. Are you upset because of what a person’s actions or comments imply about xir thoughts about a group of people? Is it because the actions or comments perpetuate harmful attitudes that then play out in harmful behaviors?

Really put the effort into figuring it out.

Who knows? It might even end up making the conversation that follows a tiny bit more worthwhile.