On Being Offended

A comment on Chris Lott's post which in turn was a response to this and this.

I was born only 14 years after the end of the Second World War. Memories were still fresh, the rubble was still on the ground, and we were well into the Cold War and anti-communism.

Bob Crane as Colonel Hogan in disguise as a
Nazi officer in Hogan's Heroes. Source.
Why is this relevant? When I was a kid, the swastika symbolized little more than 'bad guy'. It could be used, it was used, to indicate (as was the case with the biker gangs (mostly from the same age group)) to show that you are a badass. As for its use in humour, heck, Hogan's Heroes was on TV, and of course we were being treated to a host of very good movies about the war.

It is only in the last 20 years or so that the swastika has been so demonized that its appearance on a wall or in a blog post warrants a news broadcast of stinging denunciation.

It's also culturally specific. I find the extreme aversion to the swastika to be localized to conservative Christian regions - ie., the U.S., and western Canada. In Britain there was outrage recently that a Prince wore a Nazi costume to a Halloween party, but it's more telling that he did, and thought nothing of it.

This is why Leigh can say he was just running a parody and why other readers can totally not get what he was thinking. We are tempted by the technology to think we are all the same, but there are generational differences and cultural differences.

So I think everybody needs to back off a bit...

Because, you know, I found it really ironic that on the very same day one of the complainants was publicly unfriending Leigh, he was also DJ-ing an 'all fuck' program on #ds106 radio. And to *my* generation, casual swearing isn't cool, it's not something we do, and we don't get that younger people just don't think it should bother anyone.

Me, I don't so much care about swear words, I'm not afraid of them, they don't offend me (hate, bigotry and corruption offend me), but I don't use them, and I even post 'language warning' on links to posts using them (I got some snark about that, of course, by one of the self-same casual swearing generation).

I mean, why go out of my way to offend anyone? I can understand, people do it, but it's not for me.

Protest over publication of cartoons in
Denmark. Source
Or, a few years ago, when I was in Denmark (total coincidence), the furor over the publication of photos of the Prophet erupted. Yeah, I know, they're just cartoons, they're nothing harmful, etc. etc. but I have chosen not to publish them, not to look at them, and for good measure, not to print the name of the Prophet. I mean, after all, why go out of my way to offend people when it's nothing - *nothing* - to follow a few simple courtesies?

Obviously, it's a judgement call. There are people out there who are offended at the drop of a hat. Search for "I'm offended" on Google and find 8,100,000 hits.  I've had people write to me and say "I'm offended" because I disagreed with them about some fact or interpretation of the facts.

But it's also pretty easy to not be offended. I mean, you have to go out of your way to be offended. You have to make a deliberate effort. But we live in this media-saturated culture and it seems that in order to be seen as having any feeling at all about something we have to have the most extreme feeling: outrage, offense, of some such thing.

So, again, why can't people back off a bit?

One the one hand, we could all be a little more sensitive to the things that offend others (and yes, I include myself in on this, because I've been known to stomp on the feelings of some people without having a clue that I've done it).

We should all adopt a bias for respect, rather than disrespect. Being free, being radical, these aren't about saying things that other people find offensive. They're about saying things that other people think are not true. It's a fine line, sometimes, to be sure, but let's learn toward respect.

And on the other hand, we could all be a little less easily offended. I know, it's hard to do when there are hoards of people (trolls, scumbags, and haters) trying to get your goat, to tweak your nose, to rub your face in it.

But, you know, when you're offended at everything it loses its meaning. There are some bloggers out there (I won't name them) who have been 'offended' so many times I don't know what they mean by it any more. Save your offense and outrage for the things that really matter.

The former rebel chief, Laurent Nkunda.— Uriel Sinai/
Getty Images. Source
Yeah, I know, maybe Nazi images really matter to you. Maybe Satanic scrawls on church walls really matter to you. I know, it grates. But do they matter, say, as much as actual torture, decapitation, dismemberment? You know, things that are *actually* happening in places like Congo, Afghanistan, Myanmar?

But what's the best response? It it to fire off reams of outrage? Maybe to protest in the streets or declare a holy war against the author? As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working for you?"

The thing with punk is that it's in your face. To some people, that's the essence of punk. But to me, the heart of punk lies in being free, not being offensive. We can all strive to be a bit nicer, to throw salve, not grit, into the mechanisms of our interactions.

An ideology based on nastiness is not for me. And it is out of the presumption that it's OK to be nasty that most of the things I find truly offensive find fertile ground to breed.


  1. Interestingly enough, our pastor's wife once delivered a message about offence. Her contention was that personal offence is not given. It is taken. So the choice lies with the offendee, even when it is the intention of the offendor to give offence. I thought it was an interesting take. I have mulled it over and realised that many times my response is not actually offence, but indignation, or wounded pride, or anger (or any of a host of other reactions) that are all just easier to label offence in order to give myself the moral high ground.

    On the subject of the swastika: isn't it interesting how the actions of the Nazi party have completely changed what that symbol meant to various cultures for thousands of years before they came along? And the swastika isn't the only instance of radically changed association. It happens in language all the time.

  2. dear stephen
    choice - we do have choice even in the grimmest situations.
    and it is all we have in the final analysis.
    thank you for bringing it to people's attention as it relates to being offended.
    I agree about the extremes of emotion that seem to be required in public life these days.

  3. Sincere apologies for offending you with that radio show. It was done in response to my own frustration of the day's events and also as a commentary generally on what offends people. I might add - I'm pretty sure the show wasn't *directed* at anyone, no one else was pictured or named in it, nor anything implied at all about anyone's character, as parody or not. Which seems to be a point lost in all of this. It is one thing to choose to assume a set of iconography for *self* satire, another to impose that iconography on others.

  4. I am not sure how achievable this is but I always liked the concept of 'active tolerance' from the UNESCO principles
    "Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In no circumstance can it be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values. Tolerance is to be exercised by individuals, groups and States. "
    To me that emphasises the relational aspect of tolerance. Scott's contribution is an example of that IMHO.
    I liked this comment from Clay Burell
    "People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives."
    –Helen Prejean (of Dead Man Walking fame — Susan Sarandon played her)

  5. At first I was rather shocked when I accessed Leigh's Flickr "intervention"; after 5-10 seconds I realised it was just frivolous/banal.

    True the swastika is an ancient symbol (Rome, Hinduism, etc.), and obviously Leigh may express himself as he feels like it; but recipients may react likewise.

    All this fuss could have been avoided by using a different imagery/symbolism, for in the end instead of focusing on Leigh's message the discussion is sticking to the means, rendering his effort somewhat futile.

    Having said this, I can't help wondering at the hypocrisy of political correctness , isn't there deprivation, genocide, discrimination and similar horrors nowadays? Or do we Westeners prefer to look aside and forget?

  6. Hi there Stephen

    Funny that you should use the Hogan's Heroes image - that's exactly what I was thinking when I heard about the issue.

    I'm also struck that Jim Groom and the whole DS106 were exuberant - "be creative", "take risks", etc and the whole momentum was building of something edgy, exciting, new etc. I'm not at all surprised that something like this happened. That Leigh was misunderstood to the degree that he was almost makes it look like an Eric Berne game of some sort.

    Leigh is clearly mortified by what has happened - what seemed like some boisterous envelope pushing suddenly ends up being an exploding cigar. I agree that everyone needs to chill. The main thing (in my morality) is that people said "ouch" and Leigh said sorry immediately. It's obvious that it wasn't intentional. So if it were me, I'd like to think that I'd understand the intent/context.

    Anyway - just my 2 cents worth...

    Rose G

  7. I also noticed the dichotomy between 'take risks' and the response when someone took too much of a risk...


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