The Right to Be Offended

It’s been a busy week for me but I’m wondering why I bothered with it all. Because I have news for you: the world is ending. No question about it. The Mayans were right and 2012 will be our last year. How do I know? Because I agree with Bill Maher about something. Yeah, weird, isn’t it?

In discussing Robert Deniro’s first lady joke (which I didn’t think was racist but also didn’t think was funny), he says:

When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like? In the last year, we’ve been shocked and appalled by the unbelievable insensitivity of Nike shoes, the Fighting Sioux, Hank Williams Jr., Cee Lo Green, Ashton Kutcher, Tracy Morgan, Don Imus, Kirk Cameron, Gilbert Gottfried, the Super Bowl halftime show and the ESPN guys who used the wrong cliché for Jeremy Lin after everyone else used all the others. Who can keep up?

The Jeremy Lin thing, which resulted in an editor being fired for describing Lin’s first bad game as showing a “chink in the armor”, was bothersome. I had encountered that phrase in conversation just a day earlier and didn’t even think of the racial context. We were discussing Jeremy Lin as a phenom and pointing out that teams would soon break him down, figure out his weaknesses and exploit them. This is precisely what happened. To be a superstar, he’ll have to adapt back. But I totally missed any racial component until the ESPN thing exploded. And then I felt like an idiot.

It was an insensitive headline from ESPN. Not noticing that people might take it the wrong way is pretty much the definition of insensitive. But it was also, clearly, accidental. It was clear that the editor didn’t intend to be racist and was humiliated by what he’d done. But no one was happy until he was out on his ass. Even an abject apology wasn’t enough.

I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone. That’s why we have Canada. That’s not us. If we sand down our rough edges and drain all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse, we’ll end up with political candidates who never say anything but the safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped platitudes and cant. In other words, we’ll get Mitt Romney.

I’m reminded of this glorious rant from Penn:

My outrage-o-meter maxed out several years ago. In a country of 300 million people and about as many cameras, e-mail addresses and social networks, you could pretty much spend your entire life finding things to be offended by. Everyone says dumb stupid shit. But today, we know about it instantly. And that’s fine. It’s perfectly legitimate to be offended when, for example, some late night bobblehead calls a former Governor and Vice Presidential candidate a cunt.

But at the same time, no one has a right to not be offended. And it is this sense of entitlement to an offense-free environment that is bothering Maher and I. It’s the old PC bullshit rearing its ugly head again. It’s not enough to condemn people for saying stupid crap or ignore; they now have to be hounded and silenced.

Offense is not always a bad thing. The Civil Rights movement sprang up because people were offended by institutionalized racism. And, in turn, their refusal to back down offended the racists. Offending and being offended is part of being human. It’s the natural result of people of different backgrounds and values clashing.

(Of course, it always bears pointing out that the PC police are only concerned about what offends them. If someone, say, writes an offensive op-ed about how wonderful abortion is, we’re supposed to lie back and think of the Constitution.)

There’s nothing wrong with being offended. Hell, this whole blog is an exercise in being offended. The problem is people who seek it out, who scour the world for trivial things to explode over and, having found their offense, demand a speech code or something to prevent them from ever being offended again.

But they’re misguided, no matter how often they try to pretend that offensive speech creates offensive acts. The best response to offensive words is and always has been response. The solution to the problem of free speech is and always has been more free speech.

But, of course, responding to people who offend you and debating them requires competing in the arena of ideas. And it’s clear that the Perenially Offfended would do about as well in the arena of ideas as the Christians used to do against the lions. And so they are falling back, as we saw with the three-headed anti-Limbaugh screed of a couple of weeks ago, on the old reliable: boycotts, campaign and, in the end, government.

  1. So I just saw the Maher show, as I normally do. I’m not a fan, but this was a good one. Better than most, but still not perfect. Few things are…

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  2. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. The weren’t banned for dissenting ideas. They were banned for being insufferable idiots who added nothing to the argument but who irritated everyone. They weren’t arguing a point, they were flaming the site with stale statements and in the process were as beneficial as picking at sores.

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  4. And they lied – MooGoo in particular got caught up in competing versions of himself that got picked apart by everyone that paid attention. He then moved on to do the same at other sites. He not only claimed different careers/jobs, but also made a variety of statements that were designed to lead you to believe he was extremely wealthy, but he was of modest means and had inherited no wealth of note. Moreover, his account of is extensive education showed a complete lack of knowledge of a variety of subjects (history, economics, mathematics, civics) and the vast majority of his posts were shown to be copy/paste from such sites as Daily Kos.

    To top it off, he apparently suffered from either a split personality or allowed others to access his account.

    Personally, I took him to be a college student in training to be a lifelong coffee barista with a sneering attitude and venomous blog he updated on his outdated Macbook.

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  5. I actually don’t mind pople being offended. I think people can be as offended as they like. What I don’t get is why people always demand an apology. What does that achieve? – Other than an acknowledgement that the apologiser has heard the apologee.

    It seems to have happened a lot recently – people apologising for their remarks. Why demand Rush apologises? Why not demand he stops being so mean? Or better yet, just ignore him? Why did Gingritch demand an apology? He should have demanded DeNiro stopped dividing America (but that would sound stupid?) or again just ignore him.

    The only time that an apology should work, is if a mistake was made. If the editor really didn’t realise that the ‘chink in the armor’ remark was inappropriate, then, fine, apologise, and we can all move on. People make mistakes, and that should be ok. If you’re offended by someone being a douchebag – an apology isn’t going to change their douchbaggery.

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  6. It’s not just fake apologies – it’s people apologising for ‘their choice of words’ rather than for being an asshole.

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