“These days you can’t say anything without offending someone!”
Does that phrase sound familiar to you? I think it does. A lot of folks these days are complaining that they can’t say what they want or tell jokes the way they want, without causing anger or outrage from other people. A lot of these people feel that their freedom of speech is under attack. It feels as if, to a lot of people out there, that saying what you think is like walking in a minefield. You have to tiptoe around certain subjects, avoid particular words, or you might make someone angry. People will come up to you, or react to your things online, saying that you were being disrespectful, offensive or insensitive. And those angry people will often use words that a few years ago we weren’t familiar with. They will bring up things like “ableism” – which is a term for offensive slurs regarding disabilities. “Don’t call something “lame” or “retarded” or “insane”, those are serious conditions and illnesses, and you offend people that suffer from those or have friends or relatives that suffer from it.
I want to make a bet and say that a good portion of the readers just rolled their eyes and went “Really?” at that explanation of ableism. We find it often hard to imagine that someone can be offended at something that never occurred as offensive to us. And because this subject is discussed a lot more these days, we feel as if there are so many things that people potentially could feel offended about, it’s hard to avoid them all. “How can I say anything without either being racist, ableist, sexist, fat-shaming, transphobic or using harmful stereotypes?” one might ask. “Why would people be offended so easily?”
This brings up an interesting theoretical frame of reference. Namely, with these sorts of comments we are basically dividing people in two groups; those who offend and those who are offended. It also implies that every possible slur, stereotype or potentially hurtful joke is going to offend the group as a whole and further shapes the image of one group of people that are all going to be offended by a long list of things.
It also implies that the other group, the offenders, are not being hurt by anything and consider themselves able to laugh off, ignore or simply not be offended by any sort of abuse or insult thrown their way. But is it really that simple? I have a practical example for you.
A while ago, a colleague of mine showed me a satirical cartoon of a very big book. Like, a comically exaggerated enormously thick book, that had written on the cover: “Things a Muslim Will be Offended By”. The joke obviously being that Muslims are always getting angry about things like cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, women that aren’t wearing a head scarf or people criticising their religion. Said colleague accompanied the cartoon with stating: “Some people have a patent on being outraged. I, for example, wouldn’t know anything that would be an insult me.”
At first I wanted to respond by stating that, of course, he wouldn’t be offended easily because he didn’t have much to be offended about. This colleague, a white heterosexual and able-bodied man in one of the richest countries of the world. If you are privileged, if you have no circumstances that are being exploited, that people dislike you for or mistreat you for.. then no, indeed you don’t have much to be insulted by. But, there’s more to it. After thinking for a moment, I said: “I think you would be offended if someone doubted your intentions. Imagine someone would accuse you of not being honest, saying things for ulterior motives?”
This seemed to have struck a chord, because he was silent for a bit and then agreed; “Yes, true. I guess that’s the one thing that would piss me off. People questioning my integrity.”
And here, we touch something extremely important. My angry white colleague found something that would offend him. But he didn’t see that this was as legitimate as anything a disabled, non-straight or coloured person would feel offended by. In fact, he didn’t realise it is EXACTLY THE SAME. In fact, the fact that he didn’t see that explains the problem perfectly. A person that sees their religion criticised, disability mocked or feels being stereotyped by the colour of their skin, is experiencing a feeling that their integrity is being doubted. Their identity, their backgrounds are not being taken serious, not being considered whole. And this white, privileged person thinks that their feelings are trivial and superficial, and that his feelings are genuinely hurt when someone would hypothetically challenge his agenda.
Look At Yourself
So, coming back to the cartoon. The list with things a Muslim is offended by, is really not that long. It’s basically just one thing: questioning his integrity. By making light of their religion, discussing its nature and shooting down the input of Muslims themselves, Muslims as a people are being sidelined and degraded to lesser importance. Let’s take this bit further and look at ‘all those other things’ that people can be offended by. It exactly all comes down not to violate other people’s identity.
So, can we not make any jokes anymore that revolve around identities, ethnic or religious backgrounds or stereotypes? I think we can, but we have to cautious with it, and ask ourselves what the purpose of a joke is and if we are joking about something from our own background and identity, or from other people’s whom we actually don’t know that much about. And most of all, let’s not be afraid to tell jokes and make generalisations, but also listen to criticism and discuss these things with each other. If you think that people complaining about crude humour are the problem, go listen to people complaining about being criticised for their humour. Don’t be too proud to apologise, do some self searching and improve yourself.