That’s Offensive!

How many times have each of heard some variation of, “that’s offensive” or “racist” or “sexist” or “misogynous” or “classist” or…? But is whatever any of us have said or written actually and objectively offensive? Can there even be an objective standard for offensiveness or any other of the mode of expression – and thought – that are deemed to be antisocial?

Who gets to decide what is offensive? The speaker or writer? The listener or reader? Society in general?

I find this to be more than slight bit of a quandary. Determining who gets to decide what is offensive expression strikes me a very perplexing and fundamental problem in any form of communication or societal interaction. It affects almost everything since whoever gets the power to decide what is or isn’t offensive in some way gets the power to shutdown arguments and whole schools of thought.

This isn’t – or shouldn’t be – deep or profound thought. It’s really quite prosaic if you think about it. It just doesn’t seem to be something that people ask themselves or each other.

If the speaker or writer is to be the final arbiter of what is offensive then we have setup a situation where one can say or write anything that they wish to and then deny the validity of anyone’s claims that it is offensive in some manner. That would seem to lead to an abusive environment. In point of fact, it has led to such abusive climates in the past as exemplified by previous decade’s failure to deal with legitimate claims of harassment of various special interest groups.

If the listener or reader is to be the final arbiter of what is offensive then we have setup a situation in which one can claim that anything that one disagrees with is offensive in some manner. That would seem to lead to an equally abusive environment and one that is tyrannical in nature. In point of fact, America is currently in that situation as exemplified by the incessant claims of racism levied against any dissent to President Obama and/or the agenda he has for America.

If society as a whole is to be the final arbiter of what is offensive then we have setup a situation in which whatever are currently the dominant groups within that society will determine what is or isn’t offensive and enforce those opinions with legislation. This invariably leads to government tyranny – the Nanny State – since the goal becomes to placate the vocal protesters, even at the expense of personal liberties. This can be seen in the forms of what sexual harassment laws have devolved into, and the Hate Speech and Hate Crimes laws.

It’s quite the debacle insofar as I am able see, and not one that I can formulate a workable solution for. Anyone else have any ideas or thought?

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11 Responses to “That’s Offensive!”

  1. zhann Says:

    This is a subject where I am in complete agreement with you. I think society has become too complacent. It seems as if some people are simply looking for something to whine about. While there are definitely times when language can be offensive towards a particular race, I think the bar has been lowered to such a degree that it is just laughable. For example, I feel strange calling an African American ‘Black’ … its not that I am trying to be insulting, of course, but it is just easier to refer to people as Black/White than African American/White. Not to mention, fewer syllables.

    To answer your question about who decides what is offensive, it seems that in todays society it is the reader. However, the logic in this is arguable, because the reader can simply choose not to read what is offensive. Again, there are times when writing can be extremely offensive or simply hate speech, at which point the reader is right in criticizing it. However, your article seems to be geared at a different genre or writing/speaking, which shouldn’t be put under the same microscope.

  2. jonolan Says:


    Actually my idea wasn’t geared towards any particular type of speech or writing. I used macro-effects and issues as examples, since they’re big and “in your face” but the same question holds true for simple interpersonal interactions.

  3. Personal Failure Says:

    Okay, I suggest taking a tour through feministe, feministing and FWD/Forward, all of whom discuss language used for the purposes of pushing down and keeping down minorities, women, homosexuals, transgendered and disabled individuals.

    Essentially, you need only ask the group you are discussing. Do women like being referred to as “trying to be like men”? no. we’re just trying to fulfill our own potential, which is not a function of an XY pairing. Do wheelchair users like to be referred to “wheelchair bound”? no. wheelchairs make them more able, not less.

    The fact that you even have to ask who determines what is offensive to oppressed persons says a lot more about you than you know.

  4. jonolan Says:

    Obviously Personal Failure strongly believes that it is the listener who gets to decide what is offensive. The websites she suggested are all very strong proponents of that theory and are actively seeking to curtail large swaths of the language.

    Personal Failure, that you think special interests groups get to dictate acceptable speech because of their sensitivities says a lot more about you than you know.

    …And what would your response be if I said that your comment was offensive and, if you deny that it was, what argument would you use to defend your position?

    Of course, I don’t even know why I bother to respond to you. You’ve never done more than drive-by trolling here.

  5. J.D.F Says:

    People are too PC in general, and get their panties in a twist over the slightest of things. I am of the personal belief, people can say whatever they want to say – if and when someone finds it offensive I suppose they will stand up and say so. We have to be responsible for what we say… but we have the right to say it just as someone should have the right to respond.

    Freedom to speak… and Freedom to respond.

    In the end, it is a combo of all of the things you mentioned and by each pulling on the other, perhaps some balance can be maintained. Tyranny of any kind sucks!

  6. jonolan Says:

    Yes, J.D.F., but, right to speak & respond aside, who should get to decide what is offensive speech? Obviously, you can’t believe it is society as a whole since that has been proven to lead to laws that curtail the right to speak. So who then?

  7. J.D.F Says:

    Oooh it is a slippery place we tread. Perhaps it is actually not definable Jonolan. I doubt there will ever be consensus 100%.

    Maybe it is whomever we as a culture, group, or person give the power to decide – that is who / what becomes responsible for deciding. (did that make sense?)

  8. JMochaCat Says:

    Dude, proofread!

    “than slight it” … slight bit?
    “since however” … since whoever?
    “previous decades failure” … previous decades’

    As to the substance: I believe that offense, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder–but it’s up to me how I react to the offense, which is further dependent on context. JQ Random idjit on the subway uses the ‘n’ word at me? Shrug, maybe change subway cars. My boss uses the ‘n’ word at/around me? That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, with a different range of appropriate response.

  9. jonolan Says:

    Thanks & fixed, JMochaCat. You know I have problems with typing, spelling, and grammar when I’m pre-caffeinated and you know that I wrote the post in that state. 😉

    The substance of your comment seems to deal more with the level of perceived offense, and does so in a pragmatic or utilitarian manner. It doesn’t really, except by implication, address the question of who gets to decide what is offensive.

  10. Elisabeth Kay Says:

    To answer your question I’d say all of the above.

    I think everyone has the right to be offended by something. I think everyone also has the right to say the offended person is reading too much into it. I think society should be able to have shared values that people can either accept or fight against.

    However I don’t think any of those opinions should outweigh the others. Someone gets offended by what I say? Well they can stay offended all they want – the fact that they feel offended will have no more merit than the fact that I don’t feel like I did anything offensive. And same goes vice versa – I can get offended by something if I want, and get my knickers in a twist, but nobody *owes* me an apology. I can then choose to stop speaking to them or to just let it go, and deal with it and move on.

    I think our current society practically babies anyone who claims they’re offended by something, as if being offended was some sort of fatal disease. Yeah you’re offended, get over it. I’ve been offended at rude things people have said plenty of times but never did I actually have the 100 percent certain expectation that if I whined about it that person would be bullied into taking back what they said.

    So anyone can decide what’s offensive. Anyone can also decide if they’re going to act like an adult and move on, or act like a child and throw a fit until they get their way. My only problem is when society rewards those latter attention seekers with the attention they’re craving.

  11. jonolan Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Elisabeth.

    You, much like the others who’ve commented, seem to have the belief that offensive is determined by the listener / reader but that such a determination is personal and subjective and shouldn’t be given either too little or too much weight. Is that an accurate summation?

    We all also seem to be in agreement that modern society has granted too much power to the “offended.”

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