On being offensive (Your silence will not protect you)

This is the second of what looks like it’ll be a series. The first post was on difference (I’ve just gone back in and added an illustration to that one, riffing off the illustration for this one.)

Quite often, people refrain from saying things they believe in strongly, because they don’t want to offend those around them. In general, I feel the desire to not hurt others is a laudable one, because we are all soft creatures who dislike being poked with sharp sticks (whether physical or metaphorical). However, I recently watched the unfolding of a contentious online conversation — several of them, actually — and I realized something. Although I disagreed with the way some people phrased their comments, I agreed with the heart of what they were saying, and what’s more, I felt very strongly that they were right to say it. I remembered another group I had been in where I had wanted to bring up the same things, but stayed quiet because (a) I didn’t want to offend anyone, and (b) I didn’t want to draw fire. But by watching these other people do what I couldn’t, I realized how much I admired that, and what a good thing they were doing, simply by stating their beliefs honestly.

Well, so, were they being offensive? Some were, yes. Some were angry and frustrated enough to be deliberately offensive. Others were merely expressing themselves forcefully — more forcefully than I’m comfortable with, personally. But I took more offense at the fact of their opposition than with the way they were phrasing things; I was more angry that people were trying to block them with lousy, ill-thought-out, clichéd arguments, rather than trying to truly listen. (Well, some people were listening. But, as so often happens, those with the least to contribute spoke loudest and at greatest length.)

Standing alone

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time know that I’m always on a journey to try to speak my own truth more openly, and to be more comfortable with so doing. It isn’t easy. It’s such a strange thing: to be fully ourselves should be the easiest thing any of us can do, but actually it’s the hardest, because to do so we have to break every mold there is. I will always be going against how others perceive me, going against something I was taught, going against someone who loves me. It doesn’t all have to be antagonistic, of course, but if you’re a recovering people-pleaser, good-girl, nice person like me, it can feel antagonistic even if the battle in question is merely telling someone, politely, “I don’t agree.”

Anyway, like I say, it’s a long journey, but I make it, because I can’t bear to think of stopping here, and because if I can actually be fully myself, well, that is a future I really want to see. It will be amazing. So the latest stepping-stone in this journey is realizing that it is actually impossible to not be offensive. This is a good thing to realize, when I’m worried that by speaking my truth, I’m stepping on someone’s toes. I hereby remind us all that we are always doing that, regardless of whether we stay silent… so we might as well speak.

This is what I was thinking about:
I am an educated woman. This already makes me offensive to many people. And indeed, I have more education than my husband. Surely the people who are offended by my education will be even more offended by this fact. Double offensiveness points for me!

Actually, “educated” isn’t even relevant for some people. I am a woman, doing the various things that I do. This is enough to offend some people. Mostly men perhaps, but as we tend to internalize prejudice, there will definitely be women who are offended by me too. I guarantee it.

I don’t go to church. I don’t have a church. I am not a Christian. I am not a member of any organized religion. I don’t like organized religion. Five more reasons I offend people.

I eat meat. That’s offensive to many.

I’m overweight. You can say fat, if you like. I do, sometimes, but not all the time, because in the world of fat versus thin, I have passing privilege. I don’t get shouted at on the street or side-eyed in airplanes. On the other hand, when I went to the doctor in Boston (I was a bit heavier than I am now), on my medical record it said obese. Obesity is super offensive right now.

I’m curvy and sometimes I wear things that show my cleavage. Definitely offensive to someone.

I’m well-to-do. Massive offense to some people. On some level I share that view, but that doesn’t lessen the offense whatsoever.

I don’t mind talking about sex in public. Very offensive.

I don’t mind naked bodies and sometimes I show them on this blog. Also super offensive.

My point is not to list my offenses (even though I’ve just done so), but to demonstrate that no matter who we are, no matter how apparently innocuous, just by existing, we all offend someone. I could “fix” all of these things (yes, even gender) and it wouldn’t matter; I would just be changing the groups of people to whom I was offensive (especially in the case of gender). If we’re trying to offend no one, we will fail, and we will also not be able to speak our truth. So I’m telling you right now, “Is this offensive?” is never the question to ask. The answer to that will always be “yes — to someone.” And why not? No one is the perfect authority. We all offend, just by existing, and we also all feel offended, constantly, by things that other people do and are. We all have the right to exist, but other people have the right to be offended by our choices, and unless you’re comfortable living in a constant state of having those around you be offended (some people are fine with this), it makes sense to examine our thoughts, statements, and actions.

The better question, in my opinion, is “To whom is this offensive, and why?” because from there, you can actually do something. You can learn, you can hear someone else’s story, you can change — or you can do exactly what you’ve been doing, but with more knowledge. I don’t know about you, but if I am regularly and unintentionally offending people for a reason I find valid, I want to know. For instance, I recently read something in which someone pointed out that the word “crazy” gets used all the time, and is potentially hurtful to someone with mental illness, who is already stigmatized and often distrusted and disrespected. We’re not talking about being politically correct for the benefit of someone who’s so far gone that we couldn’t have a conversation, we’re talking about the actual pain of someone who lives with mental illness and works to make a good life in spite of this challenge. This writer wasn’t even saying “everyone needs to stop using the word ‘crazy’,” but when I read that, that immediately made me think, “Huh, maybe I should stop using that word. I’m a writer. I can come up with something else to use instead.” And so I’m considering phasing out the word “crazy” when what I really mean is “incredible” or “overwhelming” or “extraordinary.” Not saying everyone needs to do this, or even subscribe to this same kind of thinking. I’m just saying, for me, this makes sense. It’s not a huge deal, but it might prevent me from unthinkingly hurting someone I care about, and it also reminds me to destigmatize certain things in my own head. So that’s all to the good.

(I also heard from someone else that calling something “lame” is ableist. I’m thinking of changing that one too. It occurred to me the other day that I have not, for years, heard anyone in my circles use the word “gay” as derogatory, even though when I was growing up, that was quite common. We can change, especially for something as seemingly small as word choice.)

Now I know some of you are probably thinking that’s too much trouble, and if you were to change all your behavior just for some little reason like that, you’d never get anything done. You’d rather just live your life the way you already live it. To which I say, as I said earlier: fine! You do you, and I’ll do me, and if that offends either of us, we both have that right. For me, this is the kind of life I want to live: minutely examined, maybe a little OCD, but usually moving toward change. For me, given my aims and my habits and my values and my natural tendencies, changing a few vocabulary words is not a big deal. But I have to say, I do wonder: if you’re not willing to make a small change, will you be willing to make bigger ones? If your comfort zone is that powerful, how do you know it’s not holding you back? I’m not saying you are right or I am right (honestly, that is not a discussion I care to have), but if you feel resistance to change, I just want to ask you, gently, to think about that. Defensiveness alone tends to be nothing more than fear. It might be useful to examine that fear and see where it comes from, what its hold is over you, where else it manifests in your life.

And I am not talking to some distant “you,” the bad people of the world, the ones you can count on to be ignorant and mean and stupid in all interactions. I am talking to all of us.

Anyway, now that I have offended you properly, I have one last thing to add. I’m arguing here that since we are all already offensive, there is no good reason to stay silent. Well, there is one. There is a completely legitimate fear that by not staying silent, I will be sticking out my neck; previously, I was merely one of the offensive masses, but now that I’ve spoken up, I am offensive and a target. Perhaps that’s true. But consider this: if enough of us stick out, sooner or later, we will be too big to be an easy target, and will instead constitute an opposing force. Which is another good reason not to stay silent… and something else I observed from these turbulent online interactions.

PS. You don’t have to take my words for it. There are also Audre Lorde’s.

PPS. In case this wasn’t already obvious, what I’m talking about here is staying silent because you’re afraid your truth will offend someone else. I am not talking about the cheap offensiveness of “ching chong”, rape jokes, etc. To that I say: no. Stop that. Stop that forever. It’s hateful and — what offends me even more — it’s lazy. Don’t you dare claim this offensiveness has anything to do with what I wrote about in this post.