I Don’t Care If You’re Offended

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.



  1. Cool stuff, and I definitely agree in the main. But there was something I was wondering:

    We both agree that offending someone is at least prima facia bad. And, insofar as it’s bad, it’s presumably bad because it create some kind of harm, even if it’s a relatively mild harm of hurt feelings. (Of course, being offensive can go beyond merely bruising someone’s feelings, but never mind that for now.) So, strictly speaking, we should agree that there is harm in both cases. The difference is really in a) the *kind* of harm, and b) the *amount* of harm. Harm can differ in kind if it’s directed toward a group versus and individual, or toward someone with privilege rather than without, or if it comes from certain intentions rather than others, and so on.

    So — and, I think that this is perfectly compatible with what you’ve said — what we have should really be thought of as not two phenomena — comments that are offensive and comments that are harmful — but one thing that comes in a scale. Being offensive can be excusable / not-super-bad when the harm isn’t super-bad. But when the harm *is* bad — when it is /especially/ hurtful, or when the harm is such that it rises to the level of societal injustice, our actions are less excusable.

    So, another way to capture what you say is this: something can be more offensive when it contributes to marginalization (and suchlike), because these comments are so much more *harmful* even when they’re not as *hurtful*.

      1. I totally agree with your reply — I don’t think we really have a disagreement, if I’m understanding you. Harm can come in all sorts of forms and to varying degrees, but that doesn’t make it not harm somehow — it *is* harm, by hypothesis! Of course, it might be very slight harm, or it might be harm that is necessary or leads to some greater good…

        (Sorry it took me so long to see this!)

  2. There’s a lot to be said for the stance you take here, but it does make me uneasy because it assumes that “real harm” (as opposed to mere emotional wounding) is somehow less contentious and less subjective than “offense.” But that’s simply not the case because “real harm” here seems to mean “illegitimate harm.” Almost all social arrangements involve some form of harm, limitation, sacrifice, etc. The question is whether that harm is somehow wrong—unjust, immoral, so on. Most leftists, especially leftist academics, consider it self-evident that certain marginalized groups (people of color, women, the LGBT, etc.) are illegitimately marginalized and that any acts (including speech acts) which reinforce that marginalization are therefore also illegitimate. But the “real harm” standard only applies when there’s a consensus about which groups are a) marginalized and b) marginalized illegitimately.

    But, even if we don’t admit it, most of us want certain other people to marginalized. Some even work to actively bring about that marginalization in the fulfillment of what they consider a moral duty, and sometimes I agree with them. For example, without disputing the enduring legacy of racism and racial privilege in this country, it’s increasingly clear that the sort of full-on white supremacists who advocate for racial privilege to be built into the nation’s laws and who advocate violence to achieve their ends are now a marginalized minority in America. They seldom appear in mainstream news or popular entertainment, and when they do they’re portrayed as villainous or benighted. Honestly, I have little problem with that. I think most are benighted and some are outright villainous. So I’m fine with jokes that tend to reinforce those people’s marginalization. You might respond that this sort of marginalization is substantially less arbitrary than marginalization based on race, sexual orientation, etc. And I’d agree. But, again, that’s because we’re operating from a common frame of reference. Those who don’t share that frame of reference wouldn’t necessarily agree even if they were to accept the formal standard of not contributing to illegitimate marginalization.

    1. The problem with this argument is that it gives the same weight to all harm.

      There is a huge difference between the hurt (largely self-inflicted) that someone feels when their entitlement and privilege is challenged, and the hurt someone feels when their oppression is magnified. I have zero sympathy for people in a position of privilege who become angry, upset, and afraid when faced with the idea of losing their “right” to control their environment and everyone in it, and that is the hurt that is being described in your post.

      Many Christians become upset and fearful when they are “forced” to think about the existence of secular humanism. Some men are upset, hurt, and angered when they consider the idea of women having the basic right not to have to take a man’s advice, or even listen to him. These hurts are not equal in weight to the hurts done to people of colour, anon-Christians, and women, all of whom have their rights abrogated, their injury denied, and their rights to express that hurt denied every day.

  3. I have long held that I am responsible for my own feelings. Therefore, for me, saying that something offends me is irrelevant and insufficient as an argument to effect change in someone else’s behavior or manner of speaking, if that is what I intend. Only when the originator cares about my good opinion, is this relevant.

    Sometime after I read your post, I happened upon a comment in the local news about the conviction of a pedophile. The commenter said zie held no love for abusers and — right on cue — described the prison rape which zie wished upon the offender, describing it in some lingering detail, as they always do, stating the should be given as a gift to the inmates and concluding with the line, “I don’t care if this offends you.”

    Sometimes I just can’t leave a hornet’s nest alone and I replied that the fact commenter did not love rapists did not offend me at all but that the prescription of prison rape in such fulsome terms seemed to contradict the claim that rape was not something the commenter loved. Calling for more rape, even in anger, was the opposite of what the commenter began by saying.

    The problem with expressing outrage and anger in such terms is that it is contradictory and discredits the commenter’s claim. Also, an expression of anger which condones rape as revenge is perpetuating society’s acceptance of rape. A proper expression of our anger might be to use it to spark communication about teaching boys not to rape and teaching people about the many ways this revenge idea perpetuates our rape culture as much as rape jokes in ordinary discourse and in the entertainment industry.

    Expressing anger at this crime in such an offensive way is rude but the problem with it is not as easy to dismiss as mere offensive speech. It is illogical as a response, ineffective as a deterrent–indeed, it simply calls for more of the crime– and it is positively harmful in that it perpetuates the problem in society.

    Sadly, it chiefly serves as a kind of catharsis which is too often taken as an acceptable substitute for any sustained effort to eliminate the problem.

  4. I agree with 92% of what you say here, and more power to you. That said I gotta bring up this particular comment:

    “in this particular case the religion in question was Christianity, but it was a remark about religion in general.”

    Just remember there are a number of pro-feminist religions out there, and that there is nothing about the institution of religion that makes it necessarily patriarchal. Religions are so numerous and diverse that painting them in broad strokes is, almost by default, inaccurate.

    Great read though, and thank you for writing it. Shared!

  5. Reblogged this on Tabula Rasa and commented:
    “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.”
    In other words, there is a difference between the pain of losing entitlements and the harm of reinforcing oppression.

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