Updated below to address a criticism.
A little while ago, I got into an argument with a friend. In the course of objecting to a joke that disparaged women, I said something snide about religion (in this particular case the religion in question was Christianity, but it was a remark about religion in general). My friend asked whether a Christian might not be just as offended by what I’d said, as a feminist1 would be by the sexist joke. I pointed out that our society privileges Christianity and accords more power and respect to Christians, while it marginalizes women and feminism, and seeks to prevent their access to power, so the ceteris isn’t paribus, but he insisted that how offended someone is, is something that’s determined solely by that person and how they feel about what was said, and doesn’t get scaled according to the person’s social status. My position, he argued, was really that I just cared less whether certain groups were offended, than I did about others.
It was an interesting discussion, and it led me to conclude this:
I actually don’t care whether anyone is offended2. Offense is a vague, amorphous concept, and it is completely subjective, as my friend pointed out. Anyone can claim to be deeply, mortally offended by anything, and it may very well be true; even if it’s not, there’s no way to dispute it. “You don’t really feel what you claim you feel,” is a line of argumentation that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
What I care about is harm. What I ultimately said in this other argument was:
The problem with sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, etc., remarks and “jokes” is not that they’re offensive, but that by relying for their meaning on harmful cultural narratives about privileged and marginalized groups they reinforce those narratives, and the stronger those narratives are, the stronger the implicit biases with which people are indoctrinated are. That’s real harm, not just “offense.”
Now, I think many people who write about and try to fight structural bias are just accustomed to using “offensive” as something of a shorthand for this notion of harmful-because-it-reinforces-pernicious-memes; I know I generally have. But offense is only defined in terms of how the offended person feels, which means it’s an insufficient concept. It actually obscures the real problem. As my friend argued, a Christian may be very genuinely offended if an atheist mocks one tenet or another of their religion, and there’s no way to say that that feeling of offense is less real or less valid than any other. And to mock another person is certainly not a nice thing — or more to the point, not a kind thing — to do, so one can argue that the atheist shouldn’t do it for that reason. People are unkind to each other all the time, however, and it doesn’t always do the same degree of harm. If I make a snide joke which hinges on the scientific impossibility of a dead person returning to life after three days, I don’t cause significant harm. There is not a widespread perception in US society that people who do believe such an event happened once, a couple thousand years ago, are so out of touch with reality that they should never be taken seriously, or should be kept away from positions of power, or are automatically stupid; there is not a long history of atheists oppressing Christians and denying them their basic human rights3.
Mocking the powerful and privileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for according that power and privilege reverses, rather than participating in and reinforcing, the cultural narrative that justifies their privilege (and that in so doing necessarily justifies the marginalization and oppression of the powerless and unprivileged). Mocking the powerless and unprivileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for their marginalization does participate in and reinforce the narratives that justify that marginalization.
These things build up. Over a lifetime, they build up a great deal: these usually-unspoken cultural narratives are precisely the stuff of implicit bias, and we’re soaking in them. It’s a mistake to object to them as merely “offensive” — tacitly accepting that the inherently subjective idea of offense is of primary importance, which enables the privileged in claiming, confident it can’t be disproved or even argued against, that they’re “offended” by challenges to their privilege: or as Fred Clark has it, empowers the cult of offendedness — instead of pointing out that they do real harm. They offend too, to be sure; and it’s unkind to offend on purpose, or to fail to apologize for giving offense. But the much greater harm lies in strengthening, even though it’s only a little bit at a time, the negative stories about marginalized groups that are woven into our society, both in the minds of the privileged, and of the marginalized people themselves.
That’s what I care about.
1 I’m reporting this more or less as he argued it — I remain opposed to the use of terms like “feminist” as nouns.
2 This is not strictly true, of course. All other things being equal, I prefer for people not to offend each other; and I especially prefer that no one offend me or people I care about. Not saying or doing offensive things is a reasonably worthwhile goal, as is pointing out when others say or do offensive things and asking them not to. But prevention and mitigation of harm should always take priority over concern about offense.
3 [Update 2010-01-19]: colormonochrome correctly noted that there is a significant history of oppression against Christians, for example from (speaking very roughly and varying in different parts of the world) about two thousand years ago to, say [note that I am not a historian by trade!] 500-1000 years ago in most of Europe, more recently in some places, and ongoing in others, and I’m sorry that I essentially disregarded that. However, given that in my specific examples I’m talking primarily about US society, I believe my claims hold up in that context. Christians have never been a persecuted or marginalized group in the United States, especially not at the hands of atheists.