Sunday, March 10, 2013

On Being Offended

I realize this post might be kind of redundant, given that last week I wrote about being angry. But this week, I wanted to write about some of the virtues of being offended. I feel like there's a stigma against being offended in the culture I live in, perhaps traceable back to a certain conference talk by a certain General Authority saying something about how a lot of people have left the church over being offended, and how that's a stupid reason. I'm paraphrasing, obviously. And, to some extent, I agree with whoever said this; I feel like it's very important to believe the best about other people, and to forgive their shortcomings. People are dumb and make mistakes all the time, and I've accidentally offended people who knows how many times, and I'd appreciate it if they'd let me apologize and then we can both move on with our lives. In short, I feel like it's important to be nice to people.

However--and this is an important however--sometimes it's okay to be offended. It's okay to be hurt by things and it's okay to reject things people say as offensive and terrible. It's okay to not be okay with what people say. And it's okay to tell them that. This goes back to what I said last week about not being a doormat--it's incredibly damaging to just go along with whatever people say and act like you're not bothered by it. It's okay to be bothered sometimes.

Maybe no one else has a problem with this. Maybe it's just the way I function as an awkward, anxious, introverted person worried about hurting the feelings of people who are hurting my feelings. I don't want to make people feel bad, so I just go along with whatever terrible thing they're saying without standing up for myself or my beliefs.

But I think this is a cultural problem as well as a personal problem given a recent experience I had while working this week. Me, a female co-worker, and three of my male co-workers were moving boxes in an elevator. I made some quip about being stuck in this elevator, and one of my male co-workers responded with an overt rape joke--"at least if we're stuck in here, we'll have women," with a creepy emphasis on the last word. I could spend a while analyzing his rhetoric, like the way he set up an us vs. them dichotomy that immediately excluded me and my female co-worker from being a part of the "we." I could talk about how sexualizing and objectifying his language was. I could talk for a long time about how disturbing it is that we were stuck in this enclosed space with three suddenly threatening male bodies, and how I went from being a capable worker to someone whose sole purpose was to provide sexual comfort to an older man. Super creepy. But what bothered me almost more than the initial joke was what happened afterward.

Me and my female co-worker being very offended at this overt rape joke seemed to be offensive to the men in our group. We didn't talk loudly about being offended, because we didn't want to offend the super old, super racist, super sexist man who had made the joke--for some reason, we still wanted to be "nice" even though we had just been incredibly offended, an impulse that I don't think was ultimately h helpful, which I'll talk about later. But one of my male co-workers got made at me and my friend for making such a fuss about it and, basically, for having the nerve to get offended. He said that we shouldn't have taken the joke that way, that maybe he just meant "that he liked that you were pretty" (??), that we need to remember that our older co-worker comes from a different time period where jokes like that were acceptable (????), and why can't we just take a joke? And then he left, now offended at us for being offended.

I  have a few points I want to make about this. The first is that our society/culture values quiet women. Women are allowed to be objects of ridicule, objectification, and sexualization, but women are not expected to respond. They're supposed to be "nice" about it. Which, in my opinion, is bullshit. If someone is being incredibly offensive, then someone should probably told, so they can learn that it's not appropriate to offend everyone around you. Men are also expected to be nice, but women are definitely supposed to be nice. Women are supposed to shut up and take it. Women are supposed to laugh at the funny jokes that older, heterosexual men make at their expense. Oh, you would rape me? I'm flattered! So funny!

The next point I want to make is that it should obviously be okay if I'm offended at a rape joke that someone directs at me and my body. I don't see why that's even a question. The fact that I will be offended should be a given, and I should be allowed to say something about how it's not okay for you to turn me into a sexual object for your gratification. Why isn't this obvious??

Finally, our culture has a skewed definition of the word "nice." I said earlier in the post that I believe that we should be nice to other people, and I do. I value politeness and kindness. But the way that Utah (and American at large) treats niceness is that you have to let other people do whatever they want and say whatever they want in your presence and you don't get to say anything that will make them feel bad. I think actual niceness should be interpreted as kindness--do whatever is kind to another person, and whatever is kind to yourself. If you're being sexually objectified, it seems kinder to yourself and to the other person to point out why that was completely offensive and ask them not to do it again. The way Utah deals with niceness, where you're nice to everyone's faces, just makes you super pissed at everyone behind their back--hence the road rage and the facebook fights, not to mention the backbiting and the gossiping that have often been the staple of various Relief Societies I've attended.

I realize this issue gets tricky because, in response to this, people will tend to assert their right to be offended at lgbtq "lifestyles"--"love the sinner, hate the sin" and all that. Which I hate. And which offends me.  I would say, based on my life experiences, that the right to marry whoever you want and date whoever you want is inherently inoffensive, since it only affects you and not the people around you. This has to do with basic human rights, and if my right to have a basic human right offends you, then I guess that's fine, but it doesn't mean you get to take away my human rights. Similarly, I guess you have the right to say whatever the hell you want, but that doesn't mean that I have to take it. Plus, being sexist isn't a right, whereas I do have the basic right to not be sexually harassed in my own workspace.

In conclusion, it's okay to be offended, and to express your feelings of being offended. It's okay to redefine the word nice as being kind to yourself and others, instead of shutting up about things that really should be addressed in our interpersonal relationships and in society at large. I will now end this rant with a poem that I happen to love that might offend people who like America more than I do, which is fine! But I will still put my opinion up here and feel good about it, because in our shared space, we all have the right to hear and be heard. Have a good week, everyone!

The United States is Not the World
 and this I was reminded of by
            mamas in silk saris
            grandpas in burgundy turbans,
                  smoky overcoats
            Sikh boys with powder-puff topknots
            braided girls munching Belgian chocolate
            and a gloomy little lad with a strange
                 golden cone on his head.

Thank you, I said. O thank you Gate
                 D-4, Amsterdam to Delhi
            months of smug Americana dissolving
            as tiny white no-jetlag pills
                        on the tongue.
-Naomi Shihab Nye 


  1. Next time fight the bastards.

    Seriously, though. You're only entitled to your opinion if you can defend it. If they never have to defend their stupid opinions, they'll never realize they're not entitled to them.

    Sometimes offending people is the right thing to do.