A Sensitive Subject

4 01 2016
Should it?

Should it?

During idle moments, I open up Facebook and do a quick scan. It’s a handy way of keeping up with what folks are doing and talking about. I don’t Tweet. Twitter just seems too ADHD for me. And Facebook is timesuck enough. Sometimes I get alerted to something interesting. Sometimes I just get annoyed. Sometimes it provokes me to thought.

There’s a meme circulating (probably more than one–there usually are–but this is the one I saw. It was about “Offensisensitivity” and this one had a pouting baby with a caption something like, “2015 was the year everybody was offended by everything; let’s make 2016 the year everybody grows up.” The poster added, “Can we all agree to this?” My comment was, “That depends.”

I suppose the poster was referring to the kind of Special Snowflake person who gets all righteously miffed at minor and mostly harmless comments, or comments meant in jest. The kind of party pooper who whines, “That’s not funny!” when someone says something blunt, honest, or is just joking around. The kind you just want to sigh and say “Oh, lighten up!” to.

But this makes me just a tad nervous. Because there was a time not so long ago (and in fact, many would argue it hasn’t yet passed) when that guy at the party would make some egregiously sexist comment, and if a woman objected, she would get the sigh, the roll of the eyes, and “Oh, lighten up, Sister!” Same with the racist. Or the anti-Semite. If you dared call them on an offensive comment, everyone would look down their nose at you. You were supposed to keep your mouth shut, don’t embarrass the person making the comment, don’t spoil everyone’s fun.

We’ve only just recently progressed enough as a society that we can now safely object to offensive slurs to gays, Blacks, or women, and the majority in the room will likely back us up. We are now being made aware that it isn’t cool to make fun of the handicapped, and that it’s insensitive to sneer that people with depression should “just snap out of it and quit whining,” or that parents with hyperactive or learning disabled kids “probably are just bad parents.” And we are trying to make people who blame the poor for their poverty, or the homeless for their homelessness, see that they are being ignorant when they call them “lazy” or “takers”.

There are comments that are offensive in their unkindness and ignorance, and I see nothing wrong in calling them out. I see nothing wrong with trying to understand the suffering we cause with insensitive and offensive comments. In fact, this is what grown-ups do. We put aside our prejudices, acknowledge our mistakes, and try to show compassion.
Stephne Fry Offended

This being said, there is also the extreme where fear of offending stifles speech. For example, universities should cultivate the free expression of ideas, including radical and possibly offensive ones. People who attend such places must be ready to hear, and to respond to, unfamiliar and possibly shocking discussions. We need to have a mature conversation about how we can best accomplish this, probably some version of “You’re free to say it; I’m free to disagree.” This is probably the best way to evolve sensible and compassionate attitudes. To illustrate this very simplistically, a professor says something that a student finds offensive. That student raises their hand and explains, without fury or rancor, why they feel that way. The class has an opportunity to talk about the validity of the complaint. Everybody has their awareness raised a bit, and the virtue of intelligent discourse is illustrated.

If the complaint is valid, but the majority doesn’t agree (as is the case with many things we would all agree are offensive today, but were once socially acceptable) it is the right of the person making the complaint to raise it again and again, whenever appropriate, and endure the rebuffs. In doing so, and in being heard and allowed to make their case, they may succeed in convincing people that society’s attitudes must change. This is how we evolve.

It is not helpful to righteously insult people who honestly don’t realize they are being insensitive. I have been guilty of offending someone entirely without meaning to. In my case, it involved fat-shaming when I had no idea that what I was saying could be hurtful. I deeply appreciate that I was politely corrected, a good case made, without making me feel like a jerk. I know better now.

I also have been the object of righteous condemnation by someone who I felt was being oversensitive, and who did not make a good case. Although I will politely refrain from expressing my opinions in her presence, those opinions are unchanged, and all she accomplished with her injured posturing was taint my opinion of her.

Bottom line, I agree, we should all grow up. But being offended by the comments of others is not necessarily something we ought to keep silent about. And it’s only by discussing ideas openly and politely that we will make any progress.

This is how grown-ups should behave.




2 responses

4 01 2016

I’ve seen and appreciated the Fry meme before – because he would be meaning people who get butt hurt about the imaginary ‘war on Christmas’, for example. But you have a very good point – being able to speak up for verbal injustices is important. I’ve recently said, “That is seriously offensive,” to a coworker who was making racist jokes, and it did make a difference. He wasn’t willing to talk to me about why I said it was, but when he found out (from another coworker, when he went to THEM to tell how I got irritated with him) that I have black family members in the US? Never another word out of him.

4 01 2016
Mary Jolles

As with all things social and interactive, context and intent are so important in deciding how to respond to offensive speech. I hold by a little verse I read many years ago: “If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek/ Five things observe with care/ Of whom you speak, to whom you speak/ And how, and when, and where.” The same thing could be said of listening. Why is the person telling me this? Is he/she aware or unaware of how his/her listeners are likely to receive the telling? It is possible the speaker is perfectly aware of the effect on surrounding listeners and has deliberately chosen this time and place to speak for a purpose, i. e. as a power play. Or possibly as a challenge, to see who will respond, and how. Or perhaps they are totally ignorant! Before responding to something someone has said, I try to figure out first why they’re saying it, then decide what to do.

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