Let’s get rid of the word “offensive.”
Not because I’m sick of discussing painful subjects, nor because there are no longer actions in society that harm other individuals or groups. If you think racism is dead, or sexism is dead, I’ll listen to you, but I can point to plenty of evidence that proves otherwise.
No, I think we should stop calling things offensive because it’s a crutch, it’s counterproductive, and it masks the real problem of harmful comments. The problem with “offensive” is that, in its ballooning abstraction, it has lost significance and it desensitizes people to very real problems in society.
There are so many more specific ways to describe what we lump together under the “offensive” umbrella, so many better choices of words. Hurtful. Scary. Distasteful. Threatening. These are different words, and they mean different things.
Threatening. When people refer to something as “offensive,” sometimes they truly do mean it invokes danger. And this is a classification that should be taken seriously. Threatening is not the same thing as intellectually scary, it is not the same thing as distasteful, and it is not always the same thing as hurtful, though when hurt is taken to an extreme it can be. No, “threatening” implies causing the feeling someone is in imminent danger as a result of words or actions. And while people may exaggerate, they also have a right to be the arbiters of what makes them feel threatened.
For example, catcalling, which many label as “offensive” can be genuinely scary when it happens as you are walking alone because it seems like the potential indicator of threat. Offensive? Sure. But more importantly, in this situation, actually intimidating and harassing. Speech inciting violence against a group of people obviously falls into this category as well, because it can provoke a dangerous situation.
Hurtful. If you describe a racial slur as “hurtful” instead of “offensive,” you draw awareness to people’s feelings and can maybe start a conversation about degradation. Lately, the knee-jerk reaction to being told something said is offensive is to think that the person responding is “just too sensitive.” Saying what you actually mean can help you skirt this problem of polarization. Oftentimes, ideas that are hurtful do harm by perpetuating negative social attitudes. With speech of this type, there is perhaps a spectrum from “hurtful” to “hate speech,” where the former is just a part of life while the latter should be beyond the pale. This is a nuance that is lost with the term “offensive.”
Scary. Here I mean intellectually scary, and things that are scary make you think. In listening to certain arguments, people are going to discover things they don’t like, perhaps about themselves (for example, deep-rooted racism, or insensitivity). Ideas also might be scary just because they threaten closely held beliefs, or because they are difficult to understand or to address. Being emotionally or intellectually uncomfortable is not the same thing as being endangered. This type of discomfort is what school is for, and how understanding of the world is deepened.
The recent New York Times article, “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” addresses students’ growing desire to be shielded from speech that might make them uncomfortable. Sweeping discomfort under the rug makes progress and learning difficult, and it’s hard to imagine that in the “real world” people will always find themselves in environments where they are able to avoid discomfort, as they try to on college campuses.
Distasteful. Oh, what couldn’t fall under this description? If you eliminated everything that was distasteful to somebody, there wouldn’t be much left to watch on TV, and audio recordings of comedy performances would have gaping holes like a Nixon tape. If you look hard enough, it’s easy to take issue with almost anything. And while sometimes it’s worth giving weight to these challenges, the world would be boring without ideas or entertainment that could be found distasteful and without the ability to express “off-color” opinions in appropriate circumstances.
However, it is important to know your audience, and to know whether what you’re saying is just potentially unpleasant or actually harmful. When evaluating humor, it is important to realize that there is rarely an objective standard of what is funny. “Distasteful” humor might be funny to some people and hurtful to others, and what is important is whether you are going to actually hurt the feelings of someone listening. In such a case, you may want to refrain out of kindness, but off-color jokes shouldn’t necessarily be condemned just because someone, somewhere, might not like them.
It is also important to be aware of whether what you’re saying is just distasteful, meaning it might raise eyebrows and be contrary to social norms, or whether it is hurtful, dangerous, and just plain gross—a lesson learned quite publicly by the SAE fraternity chapter at the University of Oklahoma when its racist bus chant went viral.
On the whole, people seem to have started wanting less speech, not more. On both sides of the ideological spectrum, people try to shut down conversation they don’t like. In South Carolina, I saw Yaks saying things to the effect of, “Guys, shut up, there’s no more racism. Can’t we talk about basketball instead?” On the other hand, the growing trend of disinviting speakers to college campuses is hardly a glowing beacon of “free speech.” Even here at Wesleyan, I have heard comments expressing scorn toward The Argus for simply publishing Wespeaks with commentary on either side of the fraternity debate.
A successful example of handling harmful speech that I have seen unfold is the campaign against the use of the once more-common phrase “that’s so gay.” I have never seen adults effectively prevent the use of this phrase by responding, “Don’t say that; it’s offensive.” This approach is no more effective than telling children not to curse. But more and more I have seen teachers, parents, and peers successfully explain the reality: “You shouldn’t say ‘that’s so gay’ because you’re using ‘gay’ as an insult. How would you feel, Johnny, if someone said, ‘Ugh, that’s so Johnny?’”
The answer to bad speech is not less speech, it’s more. A brutal campaign of ripping down “the other team’s” signs only exacerbates the already omnipresent opinion that “goddammit, everyone else is crazy.”
More often than not, those who find something offensive are coming from a good place. But just calling something offensive is a conversation stopper, and it is too frequently used to mean, “I don’t agree with you.”
You have a problem with something someone says? Tell that person why. Feeling you have the moral high ground doesn’t give you a free pass from being questioned, and if you do in fact have the moral high ground then refusing to be challenged only makes people doubt your legitimacy. Against intellectually scary or distasteful ideas, the best defense is not taking offense.
Zalph is a member of the class of 2016.