Being offended is quite possibly our new national pastime – having overtaken baseball sometime in the last ten years or so. Everyone is offended. And everyone has their own definition of an offense because, by definition, offense is a personal feeling. And to quote Raging Bull, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Example time (and longtime listeners, friends, family, people I’ve accosted on the street, will have heard this one before … feel free to be offended at my lack of evolving originality):
The word negro means “black” in Spanish. It’s one of the few Spanish words I know. I first learned it while once watching Lucha Libre when I saw a character named Abismo Negro. I was in high school and was taking French, so when I saw this the first time I thought, “Wow, that’s kinda racist, isn’t it?” Then I learned it’s just Spanish for “Black Abyss.” If I’d been black (shocker, I’m not) and seen that and, in my ignorance, felt offended at someone calling themselves negro I would be wrong. Any offense felt in that situation would be misplaced and the luchador would owe no apology, regardless of how angry Fictional Black Me felt.
Similarly, if I’m in a park, speaking and reference this now-dead wrestler and a black man walks by, hears me, Whitey McWhiterson, saying the word negro and gets angry, how am I to blame? I’ve said nothing wrong; just uttered a word that in context (the key) is not just not offensive, it is the only way to convey the idea.
Should that nice black man walking by feel offended by my speech, that is on him, not me. Now, I may say, “Oh, I apologize” as a matter of general societal niceties but I’m under no obligation to do so. (And knowing me, my instinct would be to double down, argue the point, and probably get beat up.)
Then there are those who attempt to offend but don’t. The old joke is to yell at a Jewish person, “GO BACK TO AFRICA!” The speaker wants to offend the man but his sentence is nonsensical and is more likely to elicit confusion rather than offense. And it’s simple as to why this fails: the man who was on the receiving end didn’t feel offended. Again, offense is only in the mind of the offended. And as I cannot control your reaction to what I throw into the universe, I take no responsibility for how you feel.
This brings me to what should be the least offensive thing of all: jokes.
I make jokes all the time. I’m no comedian but I try to treat SOCIAL MEDIA (a term so deplorable it voted for Trump) as a way to entertain people, more often than not. I’m not big on sharing pictures of every meal I’ve had, or of some magical sunset that looks just like every other sunset, or of passive-aggressively talking about people like Facebook is a high school bulletin board. Some jokes are light and funny, some are dark and twisted. And I’m well aware that my sense of humor isn’t for everyone.
However: they’re jokes. And people reading know they are jokes (or otherwise are so lacking in intelligence that their opinion should be dismissed the way one dismisses the opinion of a 5 year old complaining about how unfair it is that he can’t fly). Jokes, in general, are either funny or they are not funny.
Now, of course, jokes can be offensive, but only if the speaker intends them to be. It’s an act of cowardice to deliberately attack someone and if they push back say, “Wait, no, uh… I was joking!” This usually manifests itself when someone apologizes for the utterance and then throws up the “it was a joke” care as a defense.
I don’t apologize for jokes. I may be the least funny human that ever lived. I may fall flat on my face with every attempt at humor. But if I intend for something to be a joke, I won’t apologize.
And, I won’t explain it either. Explaining a joke ruins a joke. I know what the joke was and I know who I meant to offend (if anyone). I try to never punch down in life so I’m not about to apologize to any “target.” But it’s also pointless because the conversation goes like this:
Me: (Attempt at a) “Joke, Joke Joke.”
Person: “That’s not funny. I’m offended. That’s not a joke.” (Someone is always trying to let you know what you actually said.)
Me: “Yes, it is. Here’s how I meant it to be a joke and the overall point I was actually illustrating through the use of over the top satire.”
Person: “Well. I didn’t think it was funny and it still offended me.”
The offended party – as a rule (a rule that exists only in that I’ve invented a Straw-man to set fire to as I rape the Tin-man in front of him)(JOKE!) – doesn’t like to acknowledge that they missed the point of the joke and then doubles down on still being offended. Stupid people don’t like it when you point out they’re stupid.
Moreover, if someone knows you and is upset with your joke, what does that say about their view of you? People that actually know you should be giving you the benefit of the doubt. They should be the ones who first think, “Hey, wait, I know that guy. He isn’t a racist/hate monger, maybe there’s a different angle to what’s being said that I’ve missed.”
This really comes down to people being self-centered. They presume their worldview is not only the correct one but that others know how they think and most importantly that the world should correct its behavior to their standards. The absurdity of this should hopefully be apparent on its face. The hubris to think one is the center of the universe should’ve been extinguished with Galileo.
By following this to its inevitable conclusion, we would have to live life according to the definition of the most easily offended person, even if that person’s standard is so extreme as to cut off all potential speech, all in the name of “not being offensive.” I’m sorry (I’m not), but that’s not how the world works and we should all pray that it never does.
(And why are you, Mr. Straw-man, even offended? Why do you care what someone else thinks or says? Especially someone who isn’t in a position of power over you?)
This isn’t a First Amendment argument, either. For the record, neither is any football player’s actions during a song, as it isn’t the government trying to stop them. Said amendment only matters whereas government actions are involved.
Rather, this is a societal decision. Society must learn to embrace being offended, hearing things that upset them, and so on. We should be encouraged to speak and say things that risk offending others. No one ever changed the world by meekly saying, “Well, sir, what if we consider, just in the abstract of course, whether we should let black men vote without being attacked by dogs. If you think that’s a good idea, that is.” No, they stood tall, shouted, and demanded their rights be respected.
What’s right today may not be right tomorrow. It was once offensive to claim a black man was equal to a white one; it was offensive to allow pornography to exist in any form, anywhere, ever; it was offensive that women could – gasp! – vote. Now, these ideas are rightfully in the ash heap of history, along with pogs and Alf, peace be upon him.
But what of today’s accepted norms? To declare that something is offensive and thus off limits invites stasis. And whilst, again, not a government issue per se as the government isn’t the one trying to shut down what’s deemed offensive speech (in my case, at least)(so far…), the general attitude of trying to silence a thought or idea is harmful – that is offensive! Heaven help us if we end up thinking no new ideas need be voiced.
It is those ideas most repugnant that most need protection. No one tries to stop Elmo from teaching kids to count to 10. Inoffensive speech doesn’t need defense because no one notices it. It is the speech that upsets, incites feelings of any kind, the speech that, yes, offends that is needed. Because that is the only speech likely to change the world.
Am I a hero for making off-color jokes? Maybe. Do I care if you’re offended by them? Not only do I not care, I think less of you as a person if you’re offended. By screaming OFFENDED at a joke you signal you’re simply just not intelligent. And in that case: fuck you. You’re the afterbirth of a failed abortion.
I hope that offended you – even though it shouldn’t.