Stupid Words You Shouldn’t Use: “Offensive”

Yesterday I had a conversation with some acquaintances, during which one of the acquaintances said that she didn’t think that “political correctness” was a real thing. My other acquaintances concurred. The consensus in the room seemed to be that people who decry political correctness are really just complaining that they’re being held to a standard of civility that they don’t want to meet. I objected to this, as it is utter nonsense.

Civility has to do with the manner in which opinions are expressed. Political correctness has to do with the opinions themselves. There are civil ways to express opinions that are unpopular or provocative, but there is no politically correct way to do so. At least, not if you’re a white male. Certain elements of society have deemed certain opinions to be “offensive” and therefore unacceptable.

After I explained my point of view, I was asked for examples of politically incorrect opinions that might be expressed civilly. Several came to mind, but I didn’t want to say any of them out loud, because they might be too controversial for the setting of the conversation. People nowadays tend to think that “civil” means “unoffensive.” The problem with this understanding is that it makes civility entirely dependent on the hearer, and not on the speaker. I can choose to be offended by just about any statement. Does that mean I can place a burden on other people to modify their speech to accommodate me? Obviously not.

As far as I can tell, there’s no good reason we should ever label speech as “offensive.” The “offensiveness” of speech is determined by the reaction of those who hear it, and not by the speech itself. And who cares how people react to an idea? The emotional response that people may have to a person’s speech is irrelevant to the truth of that person’s speech. So let’s hear it. And if you’re “offended” by an idea someone else expresses, then explain why the idea is wrong instead of complaining that it hurt your feelings. No one is under any obligation to care about your feelings; they are your responsibility.

What we do have an obligation to do is try our best to speak the truth. If I have an opinion that is unpopular, sharing it and defending it is an act of intellectual courage. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, as one can be made into a free-speech martyr while being nothing more than a bombastic opportunist who spews ill-formed thoughts. But if I believe, for instance, that marriage is a lifelong bond between one man and one woman, and I humbly explain why I hold this belief to people who will likely call me a “homophobe” for it, then I am doing something quite admirable. We need people who are willing to challenge the consensus, because sometimes the consensus is wrong.

Besides the subjectivity of using “offensiveness” as a way to determine which speech is unacceptable, we also have the problem of determining whose feelings matter for the purpose of gauging “offensiveness.” As far as I can tell, your feelings only really matter if you’re LGBT, a racial minority, or a woman. If someone says that men are socialized to be rapists, and I respond that they are not (because we aren’t), then I’m exhibiting “male fragility.” Indeed, if anything, any negative emotional response from a straight white male is taken as prima facie evidence that the speech that provoked the response is true. Because the biases baked into straight white males are oppressive and evil, anything that upsets a straight white male must be liberating and good.

This might sound like a caricature, but it’s not. See this article by Jessica Xiao from Everyday Feminism. The author of the article shared this article on social media and received a comment from a former intern of hers (who happens to be a white male). In the shared article, Soraya Chemaly blames all kinds of evils (e.g. rape, climate change, and the election of Donald Trump) on societal structures that privilege white men. Naturally, Xiao’s intern felt this wasn’t a particularly helpful take.

I shared The Establishment’s article “The White Male Effect Is Real and Dangerous to Us All” by Soraya Chemaly, and a sweet former intern who I really am quite fond of posted the quintessential, archetypal #NotAllMen argument, full of male fragility, hurt feelings, and a desire to be loved and respected and validated.

[. . .]

Former Intern: “Speaking as a white male and feminist, reading this article was very frustrating.”

Response: Good, this means that you experienced discomfort with your identity and took it personally  –  that’s a first step of engagement.

[. . .]

So yes, take it personally and take it very seriously when someone has a grievance with an identity you hold because you also hold the power to shape that identity, but first you need to hear and accept that negative truths about your identity exist, whether or not you, yourself, want to be associated with those negative truths.

That is the first step to dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy: within yourself.

I did not include substantial portions of the article. Most of it isn’t relevant to my point, which is as follows: When “people of color” and other groups that have experienced injustice in the past claim offense, we take that as a sign that whatever speech caused the offense should be stopped. But when a white man expresses the same sentiment in response to an idea, we take that as a sign that the idea is deconstructing oppression at the level of the man’s implicit biases. The double standard is obvious.

Of course, I want to be consistent. For the purposes of determining what speech is permissible, I could not care less about anyone’s feelings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, etc. If we’re aiming at truth, then someone’s feelings will always be hurt, because the truth isn’t always what we want it to be. In fact, we should expect the truth to upset us, because it will make demands with which we do not wish to comply. This isn’t limited to white men. Everyone has a duty to destroy and reconstitute himself constantly in order to better live in accordance with the truth.

Therefore, let’s stop referring to speech of any sort as “offensive.” All truth is “offensive” to someone, especially since we live during a time at which the very concept of truth is considered an oppressive phallogocentric construct. The meaningful terms you can use to describe speech are “true” and “false,” and the feelings a speech-act provokes has no bearing on which of these terms suits it best.

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