The best defense
Everywhere I go on the poli-blogs lately, people are prating on and on about these Danish cartoons and the resultant protests.
Apparently, Muslims are offended because some newspaper printed some pictorial editorial satires/parodies of Muhammed, and then some other newspapers reprinted them, to make some point about freedom of expression. And because these Muslims are offended, there are Danish flags being burned and embassies being attacked and I don’t know what the hell all else.
Which leads me to the following thought:
Being offended isn’t the same thing as being right. Nor is it the same thing as being hurt, or damaged.
This is a concept I've been mulling over more and more lately. Over the past ten or twenty years, it seems to me, I hear about people being offended all the time, by every conceivable action, group, opinion, or individual behavior, every time I get out of bed, or even sleep in. Liberals, conservatives, men, women, gays, straights, Christians, Wiccans, Moslems, Republicans, Democrats, Seventh Day Adventists, rock stars, Harry Potter fans, movie critics, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, cat owners and dog owners, members of Greenpeace, hurricane victims, cattle ranchers, sheep herders, monarchists, pet shop owners, comic book fans, dairy farmers, Arabs, Jews, fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks… everybody is offended by something, and everything offends somebody.
Jesus fucking Christ.
What a bunch of babies you people have turned into.
Look, I get offended, too. But being offended is not the same thing as being damaged or harmed. If you’re damaged or harmed through the negligence or the active malice of others, then, yes, you’ve got a legitimate grievance and you can expect some kind of redress to your injuries. But offense is not an injury. Offense is personal, and subjective, and pretty much always a group effort. Somebody does something you find offensive, and you choose to be offended by it.
You are not required to take offense simply because someone says “yo mama is a skank but Lord she gives good head”. You need not take offense from someone burning your country’s flag, or insinuating that your personal hero is a jackass. It is not mandatory that you be offended when someone advises you that you’re ugly and whoever dresses you in the morning has no fashion sense.
In short, offense is never compulsory. When you are offended by something, you decide to be offended, and you need to own that, and deal with it, and then move on past it. Offense is not an entitlement, and it does not lead to one. The fact that you are offended may be important to you, and to the people who love you, but it does not, and should not, mean jack shit to any rational structure of ethics or civil jurisprudence or criminal justice system.
If you’re driving by someone’s house and you see some sort of holiday display that you find offensive, well, fine, you find it offensive. You can talk to your friends about it. You can vent about it on your blog. You can write a letter to the editor about it. You can organize a boycott of this person’s business, I guess, if you really feel that strongly about it, and I suppose you can even write your Congressman about it, and maybe you even have a right to go up and ring that person’s doorbell and advise them of your offense at their woefully benighted sense of aesthetics, although that last strikes me as starting to stretch your ‘rights’ in the matter beyond all sense or ration.
What you cannot do is threaten them with violence, or invade their property and wreck their shit, or stage violent demonstrations, or do anything else with the intent to coerce this person into behaving in a manner you find less offensive. I say again: offense is not injury, it is not harm, and you have no reasonable expectation of being able to live your life free of offensive and/or provocative stimuli. It is simply ridiculous to think otherwise.
And yet, so many many people do these days. So many people simply head straight to “Well, that pisses me off, so I’m going to fuck someone up for it”. The witless and easily offended, who feel entitled to live in a world where everything they encounter is something they agree with and/or find comforting, fly into frenzies of hatred and maniacal viciousness whenever they are even mildly vexed by something. The clothes someone is wearing, their hairstyle, their politics. What the local public school is teaching our kids. The fact that sodomy is no longer illegal in Texas. Whether that guy sitting at the bus stop has a job or not. What the person across the cafeteria is eating right now. Something. Anything. If someone is doing something somewhere, someone else is offended by it.
Being offended by stuff is fine, or at least, understandable. Being offended by shit we don’t like is, unfortunately, part of human nature. I get offended by things, too. However, you can’t expect the cops to arrest everyone who offends you, nor should you assume that your Congressman is going to sponsor legislature that will make the thing that offends you illegal. You certainly can’t go out and do violence to the person who is committing the behavior you find offensive.
To give us credit, I think most modern human beings are now aware, however grudgingly, that personal offense at someone else’s non-harmful behavior does not entitle them to take any action or reprisal against that person. Unfortunately, those who wish to take violent offense, and who are certain that they have an absolute right to live in a world where no one and nothing ever troubles them in the slightest, often cloak their personal sense of affront behind some organized cause. Religion is a wonderful way to justify acting out against the shit that pisses you off, because it’s not just that faggots/war protesters/liberals/feminazis/dope smoking animal rights whackos offend YOU, oh no. Your Holy Scripture, whatever it may be, makes it absolutely and irrefutably clear (albeit, perhaps, in archaic, poetic, allusory and ultimately near-entirely subjective terms) that these things and people that offend you so gravely also offend God. And, while, of course, offending you may not be any sort of crime, nonetheless, offending God is reprehensible, intolerable, unacceptable, and Must Be Met Head On For The Sake Of All That Is Good, Decent, Proper, And Right.
There are non-secular causes that are wonderful for justifying, and even criminalizing, the things that offend us deeply, as well. National Security is a wonderful phrase to use to justify locking up people whose behavior and opinions offend us. The War On Terror is tailor made for lending authority to our sense of infuriation at all those goddam commie symp anarchists who keep saying nasty things about the President.
In the end, it comes down to this: if you think you have a right to take violent action against those who offend you, or to legislate against the things that offend you, then you have decided to live in a world where other people have the same right to respond similarly when you offend them… as you surely will, with such an insanely judgemental, provincial, narrowminded, pigheaded, arrogant, and irrationally biased attitude.
Me, I offend people way too much with my big mouth to want to live in a world where it is considered acceptable to respond violently to such things. I prefer to tolerate things I find offensive (as long as they cause me no actual harm), with the understanding that a similar tolerance will be extended to my offensive behavior in return.
However, I have no doubt there are many people in the world who will find that viewpoint very offensive, and who will be certain that I should be arrested, sued, or simply beaten for setting it forth.