Do We Have To Be Offended By Everything

9 Jan

You are a smart person and you pride yourself on your critical thinking abilities and general good taste.

You read or hear or watch something and find yourself smiling, nodding in agreement, maybe even laughing out loud. This, whatever this happens to be, is genius. Whoever created it somehow articulated exactly what you’ve been thinking but have never been able to put into words. Nothing has ever been more perfect.

You share what you’ve just read, heard or watched with your friends, expecting that they’ll be just as blown away by the insight and hilarity as you were. And some people do get it, so you high five to celebrate your mutual intelligence and awesomeness. But then a few of your friends start to voice misgivings, and then someone comes right out and says it:

This isn’t cool.

Here’s the thing – you’re not a bad person. In fact, you would typically describe yourself as kind-hearted, open-minded and even downright liberal.  You support marriage equality, you think that the patriarchy is a Real Thing, you’re against oppression and intolerance of any kind, and you use terms like social justicewhite privilege and problematic. You are a good person. So if you think that what you shared was cool, and so many other people that you like and respect thought it was cool, then it stands to reason that it must be cool. And rather than second-guessing yourself or taking a fresh look at the video or blog post or whatever it was you shared, you let your knee-jerk self-righteousness and fear take over. Because, let’s be honest – as much as you believe that you’re in the right right, you are also afraid. Afraid that you are what you purport to hate, or at the very least unconsciously participating in a system that you hate.

And so you begin to loudly dismiss and belittle the other person’s concerns.

“Calm down, it’s just a joke.”

“You’re taking this too seriously.”

“You’re reading something into this that just isn’t there.”

“Honestly, do we have to be offended by everything now?”

“You are way too sensitive.”

“I have a black/gay/trans*/female friend, and they don’t think this is racist/homophobic/transphobic/sexist.”

You might even throw in a word or two about censorship, if you’re in the right mood.

Because of course you must be in the right. If there was any problem with the content in question, you would have been the first to see it. If the joke was offensive, you wouldn’t have laughed. If this was something likely to hurt another person, you wouldn’t have shared it.

You are a good person.

So if someone is offended, that’s their problem, not yours. Maybe they’re too sensitive, or else maybe they’re just trying to show off somehow or cause a ruckus when there doesn’t need to be one. Chances are that they don’t even really feel hurt or upset; they have some other ulterior motive for their reaction. Or maybe they just don’t get it. Maybe they don’t understand satire, or maybe the joke went right over their head.

Whatever the case is, there is no possible chance that you could be wrong.

And yet.

What if you are wrong?

And what if your defensiveness has effectively shut down an opportunity to learn something?

And what if you genuinely did hurt someone?

Because the thing is, typically if someone is telling you that something isn’t cool, they’re not doing it out of a spirit of malice or a desire to police the things that you enjoy. They’re not trying to ruin all your fun. They’re telling you that this, whatever this is, could at best hurt someone’s feelings and at worst promote a dangerous and potentially violent world view.

Our experiences obviously vary a great deal from person to person, and the lens through which we view things can very much depend on factors like race, gender, sexuality and class. So something that might strike one person as harmless has the potential to affect someone else in a very different way. And I get that it’s hard to get outside of our own heads sometimes, and it’s hard to admit that we might be wrong, and it’s especially fucking hard to examine our own privilege and the way that privilege colours our perception, but seriously – how else do you expect to learn and grow as a person?

Take a moment right now to ask yourself what you are truly saying when you tell someone that they are too easily offended. That you value your ability to post rape jokes on Facebook more than you do their friendship? That the right to free speech is a one way street, open only to you and those agree with you? That you don’t care about something so long as it doesn’t directly affect you?

So I guess it all boils down to what kind of person you want to be – do you want to be someone who is caring and compassionate, someone who takes others’ feelings into consideration? Or do you want to be someone who is always right? Because there’s no way that you can be both.

Life is an ongoing exercise in empathy. As a human being, your job should be constantly learning how to make your own way in this world while causing as little harm as possible.  Which is why I’m ultimately baffled when people wonder aloud if they’re supposed to look at everything critically and worry about its potential to harm others. Because yes. Yes, that is exactly what you are supposed to do.

And while you may laugh at the ridiculousness of what some people find offensive, the fact is that one day you are going to stumble across something and it’s going to hurt you. When that day comes, you are going to want someone to listen to you and try to understand where you’re coming from. So you know what? You be that person. You be that person right now, and you listen to others, and you exercise empathy. Because one day you’re going to be on the other side of the calm-down-it’s-just-a-joke argument, and when that time comes you are going to bitterly regret every single instance in which you downplayed or ignored what someone else was trying to tell you.

Empathy 2

68 Responses to “Do We Have To Be Offended By Everything”

  1. barkingiuana January 9, 2014 at 3:51 am #

    “The thing is, typically if someone is telling you that something isn’t cool, they’re not doing it out of a spirit of malice or a desire to police the things that you enjoy.”

    Sadly there are many Internet venues where that is not true. But if it comes from someone you know (and sometimes even if it doesn’t) than it is true.

  2. T. Dawn January 9, 2014 at 4:05 am #

    Truth be told, not very many people could tell a person to get out of his own way in such a clear, defining and sincere way as you just did. I’m sharing this because some of the people I love the most need to hear this …as I did.

  3. The Bumble Files January 9, 2014 at 4:06 am #

    So well said, Anne. Brava!

  4. Stephanie January 9, 2014 at 4:14 am #

    I’m one of those people who isn’t personally offended by anything. I tend to think that if people are jerky, it’s their problem and not mine to emotionally take on. That said, I consistently call out things that seem to be -isms, not on my own behalf, but because I don’t like the idea of other people being hurt. I honestly think most people don’t say these things because they are horrible people, but just because they don’t think them through.

    • Foghorn The IKonoclast January 9, 2014 at 7:57 am #

      That is good because too many want to be a victim and the easiest way is to drop an ‘ism’ and the other person to disprove a negative.

  5. Le Clown January 9, 2014 at 4:27 am #

    Anne,
    I have so much [good things] to say about this. More tomorrow. For the time being, thank you for writing this.
    Le Clown

  6. daysofmyblackdog January 9, 2014 at 4:50 am #

    right on.
    i Dont find peoples racist, predudiced, homophobic, sexist jokes funny nor ageist or jokes that use generisations or religion.
    give me bad puns, toilet humour, rude words and dark humour anytime.

    I tend to ignore distasteful humour rather than be drawn into pointless arguements with ignorant people.

  7. daysofmyblackdog January 9, 2014 at 4:51 am #

    but if someone said I had offended them? id be devestated that id done that to them.

  8. Muddy River Muse January 9, 2014 at 4:57 am #

    This is beautifully stated and deserves to get a lot of attention. So I’m going to start that ball rolling by sharing it with my Facebook community. I can think of a few friends there who will especially appreciate this.

  9. ashleychildress January 9, 2014 at 5:12 am #

    Reblogged this on Unconventionally Grown and commented:
    Refreshing, reassuring.

  10. andreablythe January 9, 2014 at 6:12 am #

    This post is perfect.

  11. buildingzeelowly January 9, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    Great post, which I am going to share.

    I have just one problem/thought: While it would be an important learning experience, I doubt that everybody (especially white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied men) will have to face something that offends them on the same level as i.e. racism offends a PoC.
    I like the point you make, but I think people should take people seriously because they are human beings, not because they fear bad karma.

  12. Emma Newman January 9, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    Oh my goodness, I am half way through a post very similar to this and you’ve written the idea out so much better than I have!! I am reflagging. I simply must.

  13. Emma Newman January 9, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    I found this post and though I don’t usually share others’ blogs on my page, given recent experiences, I thought it was a must share. I am part way through a somewhat similar post myself, so this is a wonderful lead into that.

    Please read and please consider what it is saying. It is important.

  14. tmgre January 9, 2014 at 9:36 am #

    Good post

  15. Hannah Ellen Clare January 9, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    This is great. I think I’ll use this next time I get into that situation

  16. adelinesays January 9, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Reblogged this on Lost in Adeline's.

  17. Jolie Michele January 9, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    I have to agree with this wholeheartedly. Thank you for “ranting”. (I like your tag “i like to rant”)

  18. Burns the Fire January 9, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    Great food for thought. Compassion is the roadmap to peace. And yet, I ask: if we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror and laugh, who or what are we going to laugh at? I laugh hardest when I relate. When I see myself exposed. I laugh when the truth of our humanity is laid bare, in all its glory and shame. I don’t have the answer, but your post is making me want to find it.

  19. Sophy January 9, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing this! I feel that you voice concerns that everyone who frequents social media should face and question. You have my vote for world dictatorship! 😀

  20. My Muted Voice January 9, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    Very valuable perspective you’ve shared. I’m always saying to myself that I’m so tired of people arguing about everything, but I didn’t actually practice any empathy for one side or the other. And I should have. You are right.

  21. silkpurseproductions January 9, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    Well done, Anne. You’ve given us lots to think about. I’m not sure what the answer is but I am sure we should try to find one out. Should we always stop and think who would/could this hurt or offend? Could this be taken any other way than intended? Do we censor ourselves? I think there is a very blurry fine line and we need to figure out how not to cross it while still actually having an opinion.

  22. Jami January 9, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    I think North Americans are culturally more sensitive to political jokes compared to Western Europeans (if I may compare, having lived in both regions). In Holland at least, it’s a regular pastime to make fun of each other’s nationalities. Crude gender jokes also abound in the office without reprimand – from both sides – women belong in the kitchen and men are simpletons. My boss recently informed my colleague that his “little China doll” had come by his desk looking for him (our Chinese colleague, a brilliant woman). The Dutch tell jokes about the Belgians being dim and wanting their bikes back from the Germans (since they stole them during WWII). Being American over here during the Bush admin….not pleasant. The jokes hurt, and we all know it, but we continue.

    A Holland’s Got Talent judge recently made fun of an Asian guy for being Asian. I found it offensive, but some of my friends thought people should just take it as a joke. What that judge did was reduce this guy to his nationality with the crudest of stereotypes, stealing his power as a singer. Here is the story: http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/hollands-got-talent-judge-shocks-with-racist-comments/story-e6frfmq9-1226764939598

    Great post.

    • AMM January 10, 2014 at 2:40 am #

      Try reading Flavia Dzodan’s blog (Red Light Politics.) She has a lot to say about racism in the Netherlands.

      Not that the problems she describes are unique to the Dutch….

      • Jami January 13, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

        Thanks for the suggestion, AMM. And yeah, racism is sadly everywhere. I guess it’s just that jokes always carry some element of perceived reality, and just as individuals have a certain tolerance level, so do groups and entire cultures.

  23. Aussa Lorens January 9, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    There is a lot of good to take from this post, but I feel that I could focus on this, specifically, for the rest of forever: “As a human being, your job should be constantly learning how to make your own way in this world while causing as little harm as possible.”
    Great insights, Anne. I think we could all stand to put this into practice.

  24. pengantinpelik January 9, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    Reblogged this on pengantin pelik and commented:
    I was just re-reading my old post entitled ‘I don’t like the word ‘izin”, and this post appeared in my feed, and it seems fitting, somehow. To anyone who has stumbled on that old post and the question ‘Do we have to be offended by everything?’ crossed your mind, then read this post!

  25. saradraws January 9, 2014 at 3:29 pm #

    I like the things in your head.

    • bellejarblog January 9, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

      I like the things in YOURS!

      Especially your delicious, delicious brains.

  26. Elaine January 9, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    wow. thanks. but jeez, where’s the line? does this mean we can’t say anything, for fear of offending someone? I’m all about not offending people – really. And I do believe we aren’t in charge of other people. and that we are very responsible for our own behavior.This is A LOT to think about and take in and I think (again) you have an amazing point. This really gives food for thought. I don’t know how I found your blog anymore, but every time I read it I’m grateful I did.

    • scotsman January 9, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

      Where indeed? See my comment below, but you raise a really valid point – at some point, the only people with permission to talk at all will be the ones ranting about how they’ve been wronged! (Yeah, I know, you didn’t mean it to go THAT far, but still …)

      I love this blog – doesn’t mean it doesn’t occasionally make me see red …

    • Maggie Champaigne January 10, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

      THAT’S what you got out of this? I’m actually confused. I got something more along the lines of “try not to be a jerk if someone criticizes something you like.”

  27. bbanublog January 9, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

    Excellent post totally agree with this point of view. Thanks for reminder

  28. Vagina January 9, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    This is one of the most AMAZING things i have ever read!! Absolute brilliance! YES!!! It seems so easy to “joke” about things that do not directly affect our lives. But the day that YOUR child comes home from school with a broken heart because someone was mean to them, then it affects you. As a parent I try so hard to teach my children about love, and acceptance because that is the world I want them to live in. So why as an adult would I be okay with a “joke” about the way someone looks or their appearance. If it is not something i want my children to do….then I shouldn’t be putting it out into the world either. People are so desensitized when it is not directly hurting them or someone they love.

  29. Fille Pompette January 9, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    This is too true, it’s often very difficult to imagine how certain things will be interpreted by different people given the entire spectrum of human lived experience. You make a very good point when you say that someone’s being offended isn’t done out of malice but out of a genuine search for empathy. It’s easy to consider any criticism as a personal attack on one’s value systems, which makes one defensive, when really it is much more productive to listen and learn. Very well written!

  30. scotsman January 9, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    Yes, we really all DO need to exercise some critical thinking, but, dammit, there ARE people who are over-sensitive, people with a chip on their shoulder, people who will take the most innocent thing DELIBERATELY the wrong way, people who ARE malicious, and just want to elevate themselves above others, and one freaking EASY way to do that is by putting them on the defensive! I am sick to death of self-appointed “Voices of Conscience” picking apart everything I say, everything I do, and every look on my face with a view toward finding something to make me feel guilty about!

    Catering to such self-righteous ass-holes doesn’t make us any “better” – just more cowardly! I’m a short, tubby, bald, old, white, male – and if I wanted to be pissed off about short jokes, fat jokes, bald jokes, old jokes, comments at the expense of whites , or comments at the expense of men (feminist blogs are full of these – despite the fact that it’s SEXIST), I’d have declared war on the entire Universe a long, long time ago!

    At a certain point in time people just have to take in the fact that A) many stereotypes DO have a basis in fact (which is not to say that they are right, or should be nurtured), B) in many cases these can lead to funny stories, and C) there is NO CONCEIVABLE variant of the universe in which you can please everyone!

    Pretty much the best you can do is to freaking do the best you can do – and apologize if someone convinces you that you’ve genuinely hurt them.

  31. daniheart21 January 9, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    Thank you for saying this. I love how the title draws people in… genius.

  32. Jennie Saia January 9, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    I love your intelligent compassion, Anne. I think the heart of this piece lies in these two sentences, which are so gently but bravely honest:

    “So I guess it all boils down to what kind of person you want to be – do you want to be someone who is caring and compassionate, someone who takes others’ feelings into consideration? Or do you want to be someone who is always right? Because there’s no way that you can be both.”

  33. Rosie January 9, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

    Reblogged this on FEMBORG.

  34. syropae January 9, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

    I loved this entry, but it also reminded me of something that happened a few months ago with a GLBTIQ group at a University in England. There was an article on huffington post about how this group approached a queer act because the act was using the terminology ‘Dyke’ and asked for this group to change the name of the act. Apparently, members of this group felt that Dyke, even when used by queer women was offensive, and wanted to ban the use of the word (they were already successful in banning the use of the term ‘Fag’. It is an interesting dilema about censorship and what it means to be offended, as we know, that these terms have been used historically to oppress the queer community, and in retaliation the queer community has reclaimed and re-appropriated its meaning. There was a bit of an uproar about it from members of the community who strongly identify as dykes. Both sides have valid points. Those who were uncomfortable with the term may have lacked the historically understanding (not all members of the queer community have access to education or are politically motivated) and perhaps even were degraded with the term in combination with physical, emotional or sexual abuse. But those who were in uproar are also valid, as the term for them was a point of reclaiming their identity in a positive manner, and banning of the term would let those who have oppressed them regain the upper hand. So how do we begin to negotiate these tricky waters when particular words or phrases are up for contention within an oppressed community?

  35. Cynthia January 9, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

    I have to say that this blog troubles me. Your frequent use of italics as a crutch for conveying emphasis is a trigger for a terrible experience of mine.

    In school I was bullied by a girl who would leave typed notes mocking me at my desk, on my locker etc., and these notes were always all italicized.

    Despite years of therapy, I still struggle today with italicization in any amount, and high frequency usage can trigger panic and self-destructive thoughts.

    I know that italicanormative people like yourself will just casually use italics every day like its no big deal, and probably mock me for my sensitivity, but this is a very real struggle.

    I hope that you will consider refraining from italicization in the future out of sensitivity to me and others like myself. If you really think about it nobody needs italicization, the information is conveyed in the words themselves. So there’s no good reason why people like you should have to use them when it can cause pain to sufferers like me.

    I hope you will take this request as seriously. My feelings are real and as valid as anyone else’s.

  36. lucylaloca January 9, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    Yes and no. I think our society in general has become so concerned with being PC and not offending anyone that we’re painted into a corner where we can’t say anything without offending someone. I mean, I don’t want to hurt anyone and I am a good person, but if I disagree with you, I’ll say it. And that should be OK – we can disagree without hating one another. Or, how’s this? I love genealogy and I found out that some of my ancestors were slave owners. How do I acknowledge this true piece of my family’s history (they were Confederates, too, of course) without somehow “offending” someone else? I mean, I want to know about these people, and I think it’s important to remember huge human atrocities like slavery in the U.S., and it’s also important to remember the Civil War – but I wasn’t there. I’m not racist. I’ve never had slaves and I didn’t fight in the Civil War. Do I just quietly do this research and not tell anyone about it? Do I constantly apologize for my ancestors’ actions?? Where do we draw the line? When does it become ridiculous for people to be offended by things?? (BTW, I’ve decided the best way to handle the slavery problem is to find as much documentation as I can about the people my ancestors enslaved and make it available to their descendants. That’s my way of making it up to them.)

  37. anwhalen January 10, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Well said! Thank you for this challenge.

  38. talesfromthemotherland January 12, 2014 at 7:41 am #

    I live by and believe in nearly every word you’ve written here. Doesn’t mean I always get it right, but I try. Those who know me well, know that my intentions and heart are generally in the right place and I believe above all: “be compassionate; do as little harm as possible, as you make your way in this world.” When I write I honestly try to share my own story, tell my own truths, without hurting or judging others. In friendship, I try to make myself vulnerable and share honestly. Trust me, that can blow up big time. However, I think that it’s more often the best way to proceed. If I can’t be honest with you, if we can’t share honest discord, we probably can’t be close friends anyway. We don’t all have to agree, but why say or write or do things that might hurt any one person or group of people. Why make a joke, at another’s expense? You have nailed it, beautifully here Anne. So many great points.

  39. nikeyo January 13, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    You are simply phenomenal, and this is a fantastic blog article. Yes, those lavish words are fitting and stay they shall.

    The way you write is so fluid: easy to read, thoughtful, and entertaining. I’m excited I’ve found this.

    “So I guess it all boils down to what kind of person you want to be – do you want to be someone who is caring and compassionate, someone who takes others’ feelings into consideration? Or do you want to be someone who is always right? ”

    Humbling to any rational person, and critical thinker. I think it’s something we struggle with on a daily basis, almost as a human condition. At least I do..? I suppose I can not say for sure of others… because I can definitely become one of those “I must be right!” debaters on my worst of days. It disgusts me of myself. I do not want to be that sort of person, and this article was a breath of fresh air.

  40. jackiemallon January 13, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    Thoughtful and thought provoking. Thank you

  41. samara January 13, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    Anne, I had such a strong reaction to this post.

    I wrote a post several months back, and Le Clown was kind enough to advise me against using a certain word in the title. Because, as you so eloquently say, with that word, I “could at best hurt someone’s feelings and at worst promote a dangerous and potentially violent world view.”

    By the way, I’m honored to be part of his mixtape with you today. You’re an inspiring blogger.

  42. Kaye A. January 13, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

    Can I use “Life is an ongoing exercise in empathy.” on my own site?

  43. heytherebeautifulblog January 13, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

    I really liked this blog so I posted it on my HTB facebook page : ) I personally think that to be offended by something is a result of not being able to accept that something. Like you mentioned experiences are different for different people so i feel it would be much easier to keep an open mind. Otherwise, how are we supposed to get the most out of lifes interactions if we all think alike? Not that I am racist in any way, but when I think of someone who is racist-I think to myself it maybe easier to show compassion for the person and teach them about hate then it is to take offense and continue spreading that insecurity/ignorance. Well those are my thoughts anyway lol

  44. Sin City Siren January 14, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    Reblogged this on The Sin City Siren.

  45. lovelylici1986 January 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    Oh, man. So true. You have really hit the nail on the head with this post. Most of us don’t WANT to be THAT person. We don’t want to offend anyone, but sometimes, more than that, we don’t want anyone to be offended. We like to blame people for being too touchy or emotional or easily disturbed because it feels better than admitting we made a mistake, or there was an oversight on our part. This really needed to be said, and now it needs to be shared.

  46. List of X January 15, 2014 at 4:43 am #

    Having done comedy for a while, I’ve already trained myself to gauge whether something is likely to be offensive or not in a given audience, But the problem is, you can try not to offend, but there is no guarantee you won’t, simply because being offended is an emotional reaction, and as such, it can never be 100% predictable even with a person you think you know well. But with a large audience, it’s an absolute minefield, especially if you comment on something that’s even mildly polarizing and prone to triggering a reaction, like politics or religion. So I’ll try my best not to offend – but in return, I’ll ask you to try your best not to get offended.

  47. jsunshine420769 January 15, 2014 at 4:57 am #

    Reblogged this on jsunshine420769's Blog and commented:
    Very insightful and thought provoking. Nice first read from this blog

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Do We Have to Be Offended By Everything? — The Good Men Project - January 10, 2014

    […] Originally appeared at The Belle Jar […]

  2. HOLLA Worthy Link Round-Up | Hollaback! Boston - January 10, 2014

    […] Do We Have To Be Offended By Everything […]

  3. I Made You A Mixtape: 5 Blogs to Watch in 2014 | A Clown On Fire - January 13, 2014

    […] Recommended read: Do We Have to Be Offended by Everything. […]

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