This post is long but one I reference often. Edit: tl;dr = Don’t Be A Dick.
It’s a lot of stuff in a sort of web of thoughts I’ve been having and I just hope it makes some sense. Please comment to extend it further – the point of this is to be thinking and talking about it! You can skip to the end for the bottom line if you want, and some of the explanation/example-giving is in between.
The concept of offence and why it matters
When I am offended by something, I’d rather it hadn’t been said (or done), and I hope it won’t be said (or done) again with the same intentions and negative results. It’s not that I think you should be locked up for saying or doing it – offence can be a starting point for discourse around an issue. If your motive, however, was to claim offence then avoid all of those positive outcomes and shut people down, then yes, you’re being a dick. Religious people who are offended by things tend to do that, and I wish they wouldn’t.
Here’s a friend’s tweet that I liked:
“Can someone please make the distinction between not acceptable and should be illegal? Anyone?”
I think offence can be a great thing, spurring on discussion and change for the better. Loads of things offend me: from the worldwide oppression of women, religious privilege, including but not limited to Catholic clergy child abusers and their institutional protection, the sight of starving children when there are mountains of food waste elsewhere, conspiracy theorists telling me we never wanted to cure cancer anyway because it’s so profitable an industry, animal rights activists (or to give them their rightful title, terrorists) targeting researchers… right down to the disgusting hawking phlegm noises our next door neighbours make in the mornings.
It’s important to be offended by things because without that, the righteous indignation and drive to do something about it probably wouldn’t come forth. Apathy is like a disease.
I do not believe there is a universal human right to not-be-offended. Stephen Fry quite famously said (I’d encourage taking a closer look at the context of it here):
It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that,’ as if that gives them certain rights; it’s actually nothing more… it’s simply a whine. It’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive,’ it has no meaning. It has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that,’ well so fucking what?Stephen Fry – Blasphemy debate with C Hitchens, 2006
And, while I agree that simply being offended by something does not automatically give you the right to have something done about it (lots of things happen all the time that won’t be acceptable to some people in specific situations, and it doesn’t mean you can go around telling people they can’t say or do things to avoid offending people, since in the end you’ll have to end up banning everything, which is just impractical) and it doesn’t tally with the whole free speech thing…
People do have the right to be offended by things, and say so. It’s just an emotion, really – telling people you shouldn’t take offence to things is kind of like telling them not to be happy about something if you wouldn’t be too. That doesn’t make sense. If you want the right to say whatever you like – to have freedom of speech – then I will retain my right to disagree with it, to find it offensive, and to explain why. As I said before, offence shouldn’t be used as a means to simply shut down debate, but don’t go around saying how important it is to do and say what you want and then start telling people they should keep their offendedness to themselves. Talk about it.
On to the first example, I’ll introduce Time to Change. They encourage everyone to “Get Talking!”, with a view to ending the stigma against sufferers of mental ill-health. They hope that conversation will increase understanding, improve lives, stop discrimination and, hopefully, prevent suicides.
With that said, a while ago a meme was prompted around some Australian “train etiquette” posters, which saw them doctored and shared for all our supposed amusement. I saw one and found it offensive:
Now, whoever made it probably thought they were being funny – because, you know, when your train is delayed/cancelled because of an “incident” or “fatality” or “person under the train”, oh my god, how annoying is that, right?? It’s just the worst thing ever. You’re trying to go about your life and some inconsiderate bastard has chosen to end theirs by hurling themselves onto the track. Why couldn’t they just go and do it somewhere quiet, so that I could proceed through my morning unhindered?
Some people will nod along vigorously to that, agreeing that it’s really annoying and selfish and “those people” should know better. Well, I’m sorry, but you’re an idiot at this point. I hear this kind of thing a lot and I’m well and truly fed up of it (I may even have said it myself in the past, to my shame).
Step back a bit here – how many people do you know who suffer from depression? Probably more than you’re aware of, given about 1 in 4 people will experience it to some degree during their lives. How many of those do you know have attempted suicide? Have contemplated it? Again, probably more than you think.
Imagine these people you know and care about getting to the point in their lives where nothing seems able to help them, when ending it would seem better because they can’t be a burden any longer, they can’t face another day. When standing on a busy platform, sometimes the thoughts take over and people succumb to the despair. It could be a snap-decision, or it could be something long-considered and enacted in a heated moment. It doesn’t really matter how or why – these people have been failed by their society, they haven’t received the care they need, to which they have a right, to live their lives. We should be ashamed of that.
Train suicides are shockingly common in Japan, for example, where the snap-decision seems to make the most sense. My point is, while I have complete sympathy for unfortunate drivers and clean-up teams who must carry their experience with them for the rest of their lives, your apparent lack of sympathy for someone who has died needlessly really offends me.
They have families and friends – do you think their first thought is for all the inconvenienced commuters? How about next time there’s a “human damage incident” you just e-mail in to work to apologise that you’ll be late, spare a thought for the poor soul who came to a gruesome end because of their unseen illness, and be thankful your fate is not the same.
Oh, and if you do have experience of all of the above, yet still insist it’s funny, then I will ask you why – do you want things to stay the way they are, or would you rather it got better for everyone? If it’s the latter, then maybe stop and think if you’re really helping here. If you don’t want to help, then maybe you’re not as caring as you thought you were. If that doesn’t bother you… why are we friends again?
Mental illness is no laughing matter, and pointing the finger at sufferers who end their lives and inconvenience you is really dickish.
On to comedy then, as no doubt that last comment has people up in arms saying “you can joke about anything! That’s an important aspect of free speech! Don’t limit comics!” and all of that. Sure. I love comedy, I love live gigs and comics making me laugh ’til I cry or cringe while I suppress a giggle. Comedy can be a huge force for good, challenging things other media wouldn’t go near and aiding advances in civilised society.
However, there’s a way to do it well, and there’re ways to end up being a dick about it.
Here’s a comedy flowchart that pretty much explains [Edit 2021: unfortunate inclusion of Louis CK in this, perhaps that’s why it got deleted..!]. Essentially, you can (as I said above) be doing one of two things: helping shift attitudes to create a better society and life experience for all of us, or perpetuating harmful ideas and norms.
Which one of those your comedy (or attempts at it) ends up doing depends on a number of factors that include you and your place in said society, the content of the joke itself and who or what the punchline/subject is – whether it’s funny or not doesn’t really come into it, because humour is a very subjective thing and it’s only important here in that a comic’s ability to make people laugh might pay their rent.
Funny doesn’t necessarily equal good, and comedy does not have to be edgy for the sake of it. People will vote with their wallets, but we should also talk about (and hopefully understand) what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Again, not illegal, I’m not advocating arresting people for making bad jokes.
As a specific example of an edgy subject, one that some might say “shouldn’t be joked about” (whether that’s even a valid idea is part of a wider discussion), let’s consider rape jokes.
There have been some high-profile cases of this recently, such as Daniel Tosh. Jezebel covered this very well, with an explanation of why rape jokes can be ok, and why so many are not. [Edit: topically, the Edinburgh festival is coming under fire for similar.] Where your joke is directed and where it’s coming from are such important factors, as per the aforementioned flow chart.
This leads into some news from May 2013 as Facebook agrees to tighten its policies. I’m still thinking about these issues together, and welcome comments.
On a related note, I’ve often held a deadpan expression during yet another boring “You know what I hate/love about women?” type routine. Friends and comics alike, it’s so common we tend not to notice it, or make a big deal of it.
The Olympics are on at the moment. That means all the tellies are showing images of ridiculously toned, gorgeous and talented people – men and women alike. But as is often the case, women are treated in a certain way; people wonder why it’s different if men are treated similarly. Again, balance of power, context and history, intent and reality. Sure, if you wander around in a bubble avoiding thinking of all those things, everything must be quite simple for you, but it’s not necessarily so.
“Sure, I’m all for free speech so I’m not going to have you arrested for making comments on Twitter, but free speech means I can call you a wanker, doesn’t it?”
One of my favourite blogs, the Vagenda, have picked up on the objectification of female athletes (and more widely) and calmly explained the problem. Edit: Some wonderfully articulate female athletes have taken on the trolls themselves, too. Sadly this stuff is all over the TV, too.
It’s similar to why it’s very different to have a man do a striptease for a room full of giggling ladies, compared to a woman sliding semi/entirely naked up and down a pole in a divey bar. They hit the nail on the head; so many of these problems relate to a lack of empathy. Plenty of lesser and more atrocious things stem from this, too, I believe. It’s so important to be able (or at least try) to put yourself in someone (or something) else’s place. Actually that’s why I’m bad at horror films, I do it a bit too much.
When people have an epic failure in their empathy circuits, have accidentally or deliberately ignored the important factors of context, history, privilege, targets and realities, various things can happen.
Lots of people get ragey when the people they offended have dared to criticise in return. They’ll vehemently defend their actions/words, deny any wrongdoing and refuse to change their ways or in any way take it all back.
Sometimes that’s alright – it’s good to be passionate about things you believe in and stand up for yourself and your views, but more often than not this reaction happens when it really shouldn’t. It’s not coming from people defending an ideology and a belief that what they’re doing is the right thing, but from people who don’t want to be proven wrong. They don’t want to be a victim of stupidity, of error, of ignorance – they’ll refuse to accept the possibility. That’s not alright.
A shining example of someone who did the opposite: listened to criticism, worked to understand the issue and apologised like a decent person is Jason Alexander, after he referred to cricket as a “gay” sport.
my building a joke upon the premise I did added to the pejorative stereotype that they are forced to deal with everyday… And with my well-intentioned comedy bit, I played right into those hurtful assumptions and diminishments. And the worst part is – I should know better– Jason Alexander, 2012
It’s all good, I recommend reading all of it, but that’s my pull-quote. Further to the privilege/bullying/throwaway comments point, here’s Rhys on being respectful and not calling people transphobic slurs. I’ve written a bit on trans issues, courtesy of Juliet Jacques’ fantastic SitP talk.
Exploring how causing offence can be a very bad thing is this article by Gary Younge, on online racism.
The caveat is that the right to offend is not the same as an obligation to be offensive or a duty to disparage… Why, generally, don’t we? Because to do so would be antisocial, diminish us in the eyes of others (including those we don’t know) and eventually leave us isolated.Gary Younge, 2012
The internet is often held up as an example of what happens when people don’t have to take responsibility for their actions; a strange sense of duty to be as rude as possible tends to crop up often. Sure, we’re allowed, but when and why is it a real problem? Trolling is another topic for another time, mind.
The general principles explored in the article apply to all the problems discussed above and more; when free speech is used as a defence for bigotry, the alienated individuals and communities are driven further away. People don’t take responsibility for their actions and the problem is widely felt but often its very existence is denied.
This is what a lot of it comes down to. Different people in different situations hold certain amounts of power – whether they’re aware of it or not. Privilege. It’s a commonly used word in the feminist and general anti-bigotry circles, but it’s an important one. People can say and do what ever they like, but some have more ability to get away with it and cause harm. With great power comes great responsibility, no?
Context is so important. When you’re ignorant of context and history, you might not understand why something is offensive to some people. But that doesn’t then give you the right to try to shut them up if they complain. Maybe they’ve got good reason to. Maybe they haven’t, but if you don’t listen, you’ll never know and nothing will change. That’s kind of the problem with privileged groups – it’s difficult to accept change if you think that change will undermine your position of power. Like the MRAs. People are also likely to avoid thinking of themselves as a victim because victimhood is perceived to be a relatively powerless situation – au contraire, if you accept an injustice, you can fight it from an informed perspective.
The bottom line
I used a lot of ‘being a dick’ type phrases in here; it’s gendered language, but serves as a sum-up of ‘people doing/saying things I consider inappropriate/unacceptable and would rather didn’t happen’ – it’s for space and time-saving purposes. And men aren’t routinely belittled as women are, so don’t argue that it’s the same as ‘being a c***’ or something, it’s not. Another post entirely. But substitute for your preferred phrasing as needed.
You’re free to be offensive. Sometimes it can be a really effective way of starting important conversations. I like to think of myself as a basically decent person – I’m always trying to assimilate new ideas to allow me to live my life better, help people out (including myself) and find nice people to be friends with. I do believe my friends are also decent, responsible, caring folks – that’s why they’re my friends! I also expect my friends to educate me when I fail to live up to my own standards.
But if you’re just being offensive for the sake of it, because you think it’s funny or really important that you exercise your right to be a dick to people for no particular reason – expect me to be offended and express that, because I am free to, and if you don’t want to think about it any further, I’ll probably stop being your friend.
If you don’t care about that – well, it’s win all ’round, isn’t it.