It’s ok, really, you have every right in the world to say stuff that I find offensive.
Equally, I have every right in the world to say: this offends me.
I keep hearing people say stuff like: people shouldn’t be so thin skinned. When I listen to them (which I admit I can’t always cope with, as I’m hurt by what they’re saying) after a while I find it really boils down to this: they don’t want people taking away their right to say stuff. And this I totally understand – it is a very dangerous path, to my mind, when governments start legislating about what people can or can’t say, on the grounds that others may be offended. I can see the good intentions behind that sort of legislation, but I can also see the huge potential for harm.
The good intentions are to protect vulnerable minorities from verbal abuse, and as I’m Jewish this is something I can strongly relate to. My people have been harmed by that sort of thing, which is why I’m very thin skinned when it comes to anti-Semitic jokes. I know enough of the history to know that this stuff can be lethal.
But the potential for harm, in my view, is so huge that there’s no way the desire to protect can justify such legislation. I’d rather we all have freedom to speak our minds, including the anti-Semites, than all of us having to live with the threat of being stopped by the police because we said something that someone somewhere found possibly offensive. Because, let’s face it, pretty much anything anyone says can be offensive to someone somewhere. Open your mouth to say anything further than “nice day, isn’t it” and you’re in danger of offending someone. And some might even not like being told it’s a nice day.
I’m a blogger. I regularly write stuff that others may find offensive. I’m a Jewish blogger who speaks about her faith in Jesus – that’s enough to offend most of my fellow Jews. If you take away people’s right to offend others, I’ll be walking around with a band aid on my mouth and my hands tied so that I won’t be able to type anything.
So when I talk about being offended by someone’s joke – I’m very much not trying to take away their right to make that joke.
Sadly I think this is what some people hear, and that’s why they get so defensive. And out of that defensiveness comes the attempt to shut me up: how dare you say you’re offended, you shouldn’t be so sensitive…
So neither side is listening to the other, because the joke-teller thinks I’m trying to shut him up, and is therefore trying to shut me up.
Dear person who tells jokes that make fun of other people, I’m not trying to take away your right to make those jokes. I don’t have the authority to tell others what to say, and I don’t want the state to do that either. (Here in the UK they’ve started doing that. It ain’t pretty.)
So if I’m not saying you don’t have a right to tell those jokes, what am I saying?
There are things people say as a joke which can be hurtful to others. That hurt is very real. You can’t make it go away by saying “I didn’t mean it like that” or “it was only a joke” or “you’re too sensitive”. If I’m hurt then I’m hurt. The only helpful thing you can say in that kind of situation is: I’m sorry you’re hurt. Please don’t be tempted to add stuff like “but I was only joking” or “but I had every right” or “but you’re too sensitive” – you can think these things to yourself and mutter them to your friends when you’re venting about that person who was upset by your joke, but if you’re talking to the person who was hurt and you want to say something helpful, just say sorry and stop there.
Notice that condition I included in that last sentence? if you want to say something helpful… It’s up to you. You’re free to care or not care. You’re free to upset people and not give a hoot. That’s totally up to you.
So when I say I’m offended by something you said – I’m not telling you what to do, I’m just offering you that information so that you can make an informed choice: do I want to carry on hurting people in this way, or do I want to stop? You can weigh up the pros and cons, think what it would cost you, think how much you care or don’t care about the other person’s feelings, and come to a decision. We’re likely to each draw our lines in different places. Like I said, there are things I say which I know are offensive to others but I believe they’re important enough to justify that hurt. But when it comes to mocking other people – the more I started thinking about it the more it just stopped being funny to me.
Am I telling others to stop telling jokes about, for instance, the proverbial “dumb blonde”? Of course not. But I won’t pass them on, and I don’t laugh when you share them with me – I feel sad, because what I see is a human being mocking a whole section of humanity based on an external, irrelevant factor.
I’m not here to shut anyone up. But I’m here to invite you to try and be a better person, if you want to.