By George Caffrey
On any given day, it is impossible pick up a newspaper or read a news site without being presented with a fresh story about something ‘offensive’. Describing people, actions or views as ‘offensive’ has become normal and, in many cases, is enough to prove one right and the other as, not just wrong, but evil. We must challenge the use of this term: it is surreptitiously creating a profound problem that is having an insidious effect on our public discourse.
We have all fallen into the trap of being fooled by a sleight of hand in which the expression ‘offended’ is used as a synonym for emotions such as upset, annoyed and hurt. Crucially however, ‘offended’ is a very different term. To say that you feel upset, annoyed or hurt, is to communicate something about your own, subjective emotions. To say that you are offended is to make a more objective claim, that something has been done to you. For something to be offensive, there must be an offender; and if there is an offender, there must be a victim. Rather than expressing your feelings about a topic, as many assume, when you describe yourself as ‘offended’, you are claiming to be a victim of someone else; an offender.
If you doubt my claim that being ‘offended’ is not just a subjective feeling, consider the following: how does a natural disaster make you feel? When you see the consequences of a tsunami or an earthquake, you presumably will feel sad, upset, sympathetic; but no one would ever claim they are offended by it. This only occurs when we feel that we can blame someone for how we feel and as a consequence, attempt to punish and/or control the things that person can say or do so as not to continue to offend against me. When people claim to be offended, they are claiming the right to control other people and we need to put a stop to it.
This is not just an abstract idea though; this is not just affecting how people engage with each other or view each other, it is being enshrined in our laws. I have, thus far, described this phenomenon of being offended as surreptitious and insidious. However, if you actually look, it’s not particularly hidden. If we look at the statements made by people such as the campaign group ‘Say No to Hate Crime’ who say: “hate incidents can feel like crimes to those who suffer them”, we see that they concede that people no longer just feel upset by the actions or words of others, they feel like a crime has been committed against them. This is now true. In the UK, we now have hate laws which criminalise acts which are “perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice”. This move from someone subjectively feeling bad about something, to turning it into a crime, is dangerous. It is also why claiming to be ‘offended’, is now often a trump card to be played in any discussion. Whether we realise it or not, a claim that should be one about how someone feels, is actually an accusation of a crime, whether legally or socially, against the person who feels bad. This elevation of feelings to primary status, is holding back any genuine exchange of ideas and we need to fight back against it.
None of this, of course, is to say that we don’t object to and challenge things that would regularly be described as ‘offensive’, of course we do. I am objecting though to the phrase being used as a means to shut down conversation and demonise or even criminalise those we disagree with, however we may feel about it. So next time you hear someone claim to be offended, remind them that, in fact what they really mean is that, they don’t like something. Do not allow them to smuggle the term ‘offended’ in as a substitute for an actual description of their feelings, it’s not.