Have you lost count of all the things you cannot say, do, think, because they are potentially offensive? Let’s get rid of the ‘potentially’ part, because someone who gets offended will eventually come out. Do you spend more time second guessing every word then actually talking to people? Do you feel low-key anxious, preventively guilty, whenever you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboards?
Well, you’re not alone, but before we begin there’s something about me I’d like to share.
I come from a city the rest of my country loves to hate.
There is no unemployment where I live, it’s just that we’re lazy, and maybe that’s why before it became illegal (but also after), one could run into job offers where people like me need not apply.
As a general rule we don’t often wash, so we are cordially invited to eat soap.
On the other hand, we have a beautiful dormant volcano, great for selfies and postcards, which should “wash us with fire”.
One true fact is that we are all scammers, where I live, so it’s only fair that insuring a car costs much more here, than in the rest of the country.
At least we are a vital lot, our imagination must be inspiring because the slurs invented for us can be quite creative.
If that weren’t enough I’m a single woman, with no children, therefore I’m weird, wrong, sad, according to a society that despite the progress of recent years is still traditionalist to the point of being retrograde.
I’m not saying this to play the victim, which I’m not. I don’t feel oppressed and I hate being pitied. I’m saying this because I am a white woman with many privileges, but nevertheless I’ve known prejudice firsthand, since the day I was born. The last thing I wish for is for people to feel entitled to be deliberately discriminatory, or cruel, or to hurt others on purpose.
We each have a duty to be kind and considerate, yet too much of a good thing is, well, too much.
And the winner is
That said, and despite my own experience, I find myself quite exhausted by those who enjoy calling every single thing under the sun offensive. When everything becomes an exercise in self-righteousness there’s definitely something wrong.
When somebody stretches a sensible reasoning to the point of turning it into a caricature, when somebody translate a sentence or a thought into a wrong context, depriving it of part or all of its meaning, when faced with a minor accident people have to remind themselves that they’re supposed to be offended, even if they don’t actually feel offended at all, there is something wrong.
Here are a few examples, some evergreen, but the list of offensive things is endless:
-Asking somebody what they do, just to break the ice, is offensive because the poor fellow could be unemployed.
-Watching a movie with an actor who said something awkward 8 years ago is offensive, I’m not sure why, but it is.
-Wishing a Merry Christmas to someone we don’t know is offensive, because we don’t have to make assumptions about people’s religious beliefs.
We wanted to save our society from prejudice, make it a safe place for everybody. This was and will always be a noble goal, worth every effort, but I guess some of us are just trying a bit too hard. We’re going round to the point of reviving the un-holy Inquisition, the most cringe worthy bigotry, giving life to a vicious circle which leads to death the most common expressions of freedom, such as free thought, satire, debate. Let alone the disruptive potential of art.
There are public figures who no longer want to speak in universities, because it’s a risk for their entire career. Cinema and entertainment are jumping through hoops to not be boycotted by the fans, giving them homologated, ‘safe’ products, and jeopardizing one of the most beautiful traits of human beings: creativity.
Even a healthy, civil discussion becomes impossible if on the other side there are those who analyze every sentence, word by word, in the hope of finding the wrong one. And they will find something, doubt not. It’s actually a very easy task, extracting one sentence from the context and purposefully choosing to read other people’s words in the worst possible way.
What was born an admirable intent is becoming a grotesque competition to see who gets offended the most, with only one possible winner: our own narcissism.
Cruel (?) intentions
I know that freedom of speech and thought, and freedom to harass and judge are nowhere near the same, but there is a distinction that would be very important to make, whenever we listen to other people, and that is the intent with which those people speak.
Again, I’d like to share my own experience. I am Italian, I travel a lot, and when I cross the borders of my country I always, always, find someone who mimics a gun with their hands and says to me “Italy? Mafia!” Now, I could choose to be offended, punish the other boring him/her to death with a long list of all the most heinous mafia killings of the last 100 years. Or I could accept that a) the other person is just trying to start a conversation, perhaps in a clumsy way, but still meaning no harm at all, and b) that fiction created a distorted, romanticized vision of the mafia, and therefore it’s to be expected that many simply don’t know what they are talking about. And it’s not their fault.
Another example? “You’re Italian, sing!” Well, no, there is only one Pavarotti and I avoid singing even in the shower, for the sake of the tiles. Yet this is another stereotype, should it bother me? I don’t think so, opera speaks Italian more often than not, it’s no wonder that people link me to it.
Now, anyone with a little common sense can tell when somebody else is being deliberately offensive, or just a bit naïve. True, stereotypes and assumptions do exist, and sometimes they can be seriously harmful, but in many other cases they are pretty innocent, and they actually contain a grain of truth, otherwise they wouldn’t have become stereotypes to begin with.
It doesn’t offend me that people see me, a grown up woman, and assume I have children, because that’s what happens to most grown up women. If someone tries to make me feel bad because of it, then yes, that’s offensive, but the distinction is very clear to me.
The malicious intent is often very visible, but if one chooses to see it when it’s just not there, then this can’t be called justice. It’s only a perverse pleasure in eye rolling with the demeanor of an offended queen, a fleeting moment of satisfaction in reproaching others, or if you prefer, 15 seconds of feeling superior.
Where does it all comes from?
I’m afraid I don’t own all the answers, but I’m pretty sure this is nothing new, the insane need to feel offended 24/7 has always been there. Now it is amplified by extremely powerful communication tools, and even legitimized by them. The anonymity that our screens guarantee us also plays an important role.
In my humble opinion, anyway, there are two factors at play.
- Narcissism. It is inherent with the human race, sometimes it’s easy to keep it at bay, sometimes it’s not, and everything suddenly is about me. There is a sincere yearning for justice, in many people, and again, I think this is a good thing. Yet somewhere the mechanism breaks down, our ego gets fed again and again by the sense of gratification that comes from the awareness of having done the right thing, our part. Even those who have the best intentions are not exempt from the risk of getting carried away and losing sight of the goal, which is to solve a problem, not to put ourselves on a pedestal.
- Mental laziness. I don’t like this so I call it offensive. End of the story. This is actually a factor of danger, because it gives us a shallow vision of the world. Every day there is someone who tells us what we think, what we need, what we are supposed to want, like or dislike. Many of us let themselves being lulled to this false sense of security, because thinking critically requires more effort, it drives us out of our comfort zone, and it generates uneasiness, because it forces us to admit that we cannot always have all the answers, and we don’t necessarily have to be right.
We’re starting to think like computers, if X then Y. We put people and facts into two categories, and only two, True and False, Good and Bad. Anything more complex than this arouses distrust, to the point of convincing us that we’re being cheated somehow. So no form of redemption is foreseen, no nuance is acceptable.
It is no coincidence that politicians often feed on this mechanism to discredit opponents, it’s easier and faster than convincing potential voters of the validity of an idea.
We are complex beings
No one wants to excuse misogyny, homophobia, racism, or any form of discrimination, let’s be very clear on this point, but sitting on the edge of our seats, eagerly waiting for the other (whom we have already implicitly classified as wrong) to make a mistake, in order to be able to reproach him/her is an excess that we, as a civil society, cannot afford. This easily leads to intimidating people into saying what we want or shut up. It’s arrogance, hidden behind the pretext of a just cause, at it’s often the prelude to various forms of fanaticism.
Before putting random people in the pillory for a wrong word we should always analyze a situation in its complexity, make an effort, and try to be forgiving. This is not an abstract concept because it reflects on how we act and behave in our everyday life.
We should really avoid judging someone else’s life and personality on the basis of a single episode, an awkward moment, or a different opinion, as controversial as it may be. We cannot define a person by their mistakes only, or by their flaws, above all because we are not willing to do this with ourselves. If we make a genuine mistake and apologize, we expect to be forgiven, and for the incident to be forgotten. If somebody else thinks they have us all figured out just because of one of our flaws we feel like we are being treated unfairly. And indeed we are.
We are not machines, the dicotomy True/False simply doesn’t apply to us.