“I find this offensive”: How “offense” discourse traps us into inaction

No, you do not have a right to not be offended. Concomitantly, we need to stop using “offended” as a synonym for “structural harm” or “oppression” in everyday political discourse. 

It has to be one of the most significant rhetorical own-goals of the Left since the 1960s: allowing the word “offend” to become the go-to way of describing the harms of prejudice. “This content offends me,” “your words are offensive,” “his conduct gave offence to x,” etc. What this has always facilitated is the commonplace reactionary response to such moral injunctions, defending some imagined noble right to give offense lardered with smug Stephen Fry image macros. Cue “free speech” arguments ad nauseam that resolve into garrulous nothingness.

We saw this play out in dramatic and unsettling fashion in the wake of the massacre of many of Charlie Hebdo’s staff in Paris last month, where many rallied around the newspaper’s “offensive” tradition and stood tall on the graves of the fallen, pencils raised in the air to announce that “offensiveness” was the cornerstone of a free press and our shared right to free expression, crowding out discussion of how the French media can promote hateful stereotypes that deepen the country’s struggles with racism.

This word, “offense,” is the devil in every detail of every argument and it needs to go. To use it to describe acts of prejudice is to cede much of a hotly contested epistemic field to those only too happy to make the discussion entirely about speech rights rather than material harm.

Loathsome as such arguments are, they do contain a basic truth: there is no way to guarantee that one will never be offended, and individual offense ought not be the yardstick by which we measure civil rights and liberties. But then, virtually no one on the feminist or anti-racist Left has been calling for that in the first place. When we discuss being “offended” we are, more often than not, talking about people being hurt in material ways.

This is not to dismiss the importance of emotion, of course. There is a parallel problem with our culture worshipping at wanton offensiveness’ bonfire, which is that it can coarsen our discourse and cheapen the currency of offensiveness itself during those times when its barbs need to cut most deeply (such as when one is offending those in power). To acknowledge that it is impossible and even undesirable to control everyone’s feelings is not the same as arguing that offense is harmless, or that it should be done for its own sake, or that every offensive word and deed should be celebrated as some grand strike for Enlightenment values. There remains something pathetically immature and irresponsible about such ideas.

But we must distinguish this set of issues from the question of material harm. Being made to fear for your life is not the same as feeling hurt by speech. Losing your job as a result of stereotypes or harassment contained in speech is not the same as feeling personally offended by that speech. Being shot by the police because of ideas about your skin color transmitted through discourse is not the same as merely being offended by it. Being outed against your will is not the same as having your feelings hurt by it. It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.

Just words?


Part of the reason we are drowning in a discourse of offendedness has to do with the triumph of an individualist, un-structural reading of history in the wake of the 1960s civil rights movements which interpreted phenomena like racism as expressions of loud, individual derangement. To be a racist was to speak like Bull Connor, and thus in an offensive and hurtful register, rather than to be part of sustaining a system that gives those words power.

This is why, as a whole society, we only condemn racism vociferously when an individual like Donald Sterling says the n-word out loud, while Fox News can get away with “polite” race-baiting for ages because they studiously avoid “offensive” language. This ensures people apologize for “coarse language” rather than a hateful idea likely to cause violence. Similarly, in transphobic discourse, the T-word is often silent and therefore such speech is considered inherently less offensive and thus not prejudiced. This is the trap that orienting our discussion of oppression around “offense” leads us straight into.

“Offense” discourse encourages every fallacious false-equivalence under the sun. The idea that calling a white person a “cracker” is racist stems from this discourse; if “offense” is your only yardstick for measuring prejudice, then yes, surely hurting feelings with that word is racist. But in the real world actual racism is not about hurt feelings. It’s about being incarcerated, harassed, strip-searched, stalked, murdered, denied career advancement or an education, or being at risk of the foregoing and then having someone rub in one’s face the slurs and stereotypes that animate it all. Against all this, the psychic paper cut of “cracker” surely pales.

We respond to prejudice in pointillist fashion: this individual said something that hurt this other individual; therefore “offense” is the best way to describe that harm. But the reality is that when we talk about something like, say, misgendering a trans woman or using her old name in public, what is happening in those situations transcends the individual offense felt by the woman in question. That is part of her experience of the event, and part of the harm, but it is not in itself a political matter. What is political, in no uncertain terms, is the way such words and ideas are the spearpoint of violence against trans women, used to justify it and all but ensure such crimes will be repeated. That is what so many transphobes on the internet deliberately access when they employ transmisogynist hate speech, and that is what takes it above the level of mere offensiveness. So many of our slain sisters died hearing their murderers misgender them; those who survive could, for instance, tell tales of angry men throwing bottles at them shouting “that’s a man!”

To speak of the offensiveness of the words alone does violence to understanding the full scope of what is actually happening in such cases and gives in to the inertia of abstract debate.


Last year in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting I wrote an essay entitled “When Words Become Bullets” to demonstrate how echo-chamber discourse metastasizes into very physical violence. Hurt feelings were not the primary crime committed by Eliot Rodger’s words; it was how he contributed to a culture of violent misogyny and racism that ultimately motivated him to take six lives that interested feminists. When we talk about the many excesses of online discourse, be it in online harassment, or in extremists like the men’s rights movement or GamerGate, we are not primarily discussing how they hurt peoples’ feelings and asking for protection from that offense. We are discussing how they destroy lives.

Words and ideas shape and justify inflicting harm on marginal others; just as they impel men like Rodger or Anders Bering Brevik to murder, they also serve to inspire and justify campaigns of online harassment that can drive people from their homes, impose difficult working conditions on them, force them from jobs or other sources of income, and open them and their families up to physical violence — be it from people threatening to kill them directly, or through deceiving the police into swatting their target. The prejudicial ideas that make all this justifiable to the masses of perpetrators are not merely “offensive,” though in their shallow ignorance and painful stupidity they are most certainly that. They are outright dangerous to people’s well being. Ignoring that is what allows, for instance, a cadre of angry young gamers to pretend “Gamers are Over” is a parallel prejudice to the ongoing harassment of women, queer people, and allies in the gaming world.

With that, let us retire “that’s offensive” from our discourse and start saying what we mean.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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