If you’re an activist with access to the Internet, then at least once a day – generally more often than that – you’ll come across comments such as these:
“You’re just looking for reasons to be offended.”
“Everything is going to offend someone.”
“Stop being so sensitive, this isn’t even offensive – it’s just a joke.”
You’ll probably also see one of these two popular quotes:
Or a blunter offering from Ricky Gervais:
The implications of all of the above statements are clear. Getting upset about something simply because it’s ‘offensive’ is ludicrous. Haven’t you got better things to be worrying about? If the worst thing that happens to you today is that you get offended, then honey, you’ve got an easy life.
There’s an obvious problem with this attitude, namely that it is not okay to police another person’s reaction to anything. Yes, people telling ‘offensive’ jokes have freedom of speech, but freedom of speech cuts both ways – if you have the right to say something offensive, other people have the right to tell you what they think about it. Speaking out against something someone has said or done isn’t censorship. As many, many activists have already noted – free speech means freedom from arrest, not freedom from criticism or opposition.
Instead, I’m going to talk about something I’m noticing more and more often in discussions about offence. This is that people who defend someone or something’s right to be offensive often fail to make a very important distinction – the distinction between offence and hurt.
Offence and hurt are not the same. There’s a line between the two, and that line exists because of privilege. When you have it, privilege is a difficult thing to notice – it’s been likened to a fish’s attitude to water. If you are in a position where you have a great deal of privilege – for example, if you’re white, straight, cis, male and able-bodied – then you might look at jokes that other people are describing as hurtful, and only see sensitive people taking offence. But when you put aside the lens of privilege, it soon becomes clear that this isn’t the case.
Many people have written about the difference between punching up and punching down in comedy. To put it in its simplest terms, punching up is when you make fun of someone who has a greater position of privilege than yourself – Oliver Twist mocking Mr Bumble. Punching down is when you make fun of someone with less privilege – Mr Bumble mocking Oliver. These two situations are not equal. If Oliver mocks Mr Bumble, it doesn’t hurt Mr Bumble in the slightest. He might be offended, but it makes no difference to his life. But flip the situation, and suddenly things are very different. Oliver isn’t only being starved and beaten and exploited – acts which have already dehumanised him – but he’s being made into the butt of a joke, which dehumanises him even further. And he has no way to fight back against it. Mr Bumble is in charge.
People who can’t see the difference between offence and hurt don’t get this. Another common argument heard by online feminists and activists is “You say you believe in equality, but you don’t want me telling jokes about women/POC/disabled people/gay people/trans* people! But that’s treating people differently! That’s not equal!”
Again, this is an easy one to answer. While I have a lot of issues with Jezebel (that’s a subject for another blog), I think they summed it up very well here:
‘…being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.’ – Jezebel
This, essentially, is the difference between offence and hurt. If you’re a privileged person being mocked by someone without privilege, then it’s offence. If you’re a marginalised person being mocked by someone with privilege, then it’s hurt. If Ricky Gervais (a white, straight, cis, able-bodied, rich man) mocks David Cameron (a white, straight, cis, able-bodied, rich man from an upper-class background), then that’s punching up. David Cameron might be offended, but nothing Ricky Gervais says can truly harm him. It doesn’t have any significant impact on his life, his social position, his power within society. However, when Ricky Gervais allows his show to include the mockery of a woman with a facial disfigurement, then that’s a very different story. As the linked article shows, the comments by Karl Pilkington and Stephen Merchant weren’t offensive. They were hurtful, and they caused very real harm.
Of course, hurt and offence don’t always stem from jokes. Taking a more personal example; I recently binge-watched the final three series of Dexter. (Warning for spoilers, if there’s anyone out there who’s even later to the party than I am). Part of seasons 6 and 7 centre around Dexter’s sister Deb, and her realisation that she doesn’t just love Dexter as a brother – she’s in love with him. As anyone who watches the series knows, Deb and Dexter are adopted siblings, and that’s what offended me. There is no way that a mainstream TV series would have set up a similar plotline with biological siblings, which implies that the show views Dexter and Deb’s sibling relationship as less ‘real’ somehow. This offended me because I have some close family members who are not biologically related to me, and you know what? It makes no damn difference. My ties with those family members are as real as if we shared DNA.
So, Dexter’s adopted-brother-sister romantic subplot offended me. (It was also badly executed and added nothing to the plot, but that’s by the by). But that was all it did. It offended. It didn’t hurt, because I have experienced no stigma because of my situation. I’m not marginalised or oppressed in any way by social perceptions of my family ties. I didn’t like it, and I’ll say I didn’t like it, but I won’t be writing to the network and demanding that they apologise and never do it again.
On the other hand, I live with depression and anxiety. While I manage these mental health problems very well these days, there are times when they have had an overwhelming impact on my life. And, unlike the situation I described above, there is a huge amount of stigma around mental health issues. It’s only recently that I’ve felt comfortable publicly admitting that I have these problems, because I was afraid of the reaction. And so, representations of mental illness that portray mentally ill people as dangerous, or lazy, or selfish, hurt me. Not because I believe they’re aimed at me personally, but because they reinforce all the negative stereotypes about mental illness. And those stereotypes do impact on people’s lives, mine included. That impact is why it hurts. So when I see someone who’s never lived with MI mocking depression or anxiety or other mental illnesses, then I will call them out on it. They’re not being offensive. They’re causing harm.
To use a different example: I love dancing. I’m not especially good at it, but I make up for my lack of skill with enthusiasm. If someone wandered into my class, looked at me and said “Pfft, white people shouldn’t dance,” then that might offend me (it probably wouldn’t, I’d probably just stick my tongue out at them, and then fall over). But it wouldn’t hurt, because there is no systemic prejudice against white dancers for being white (or indeed, against white people for being white, because reverse racism is not a thing). There are literally tens of thousands of successful white dancers out there. A white dancer’s whiteness has never stopped them from becoming a dancer – if they have the ability and the breaks, they’ll make it. Saying “white people can’t dance” might offend, but it doesn’t hurt.
Now imagine that the hypothetical person looked at me and said “Pfft, fat people shouldn’t dance.” Suddenly, the situation is very different. A fat dancer can have the ability and the skill, she can be a fantastic dancer – but fat dancers don’t tend to make it. They’re extremely rare, because even if a fat dancer proves she’s amazing, social prejudice against fat people means that people will still tell her “Yeah, but you don’t *look* like a dancer. We’re going to go with the thin woman, thanks.” And that’s just one specific scenario. A negative comment about why I shouldn’t do something because of my size doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it links back to our society’s hatred of fatness and the accompanying dehumanisation of fat people. The comment doesn’t offend – it crashes down on me with the weight of all those stereotypes, all that prejudice. It hurts.
So yes, offend away. Offence, in the sense of punching up against the privileged, does no harm, and might even shake a few of them out of their complacency (although I’m not holding my breath when it comes to Cameron). But keep an eye on that line. I’ll fight tooth and nail for your right to offend, even when it’s me that you’re offending. I’m white, straight, cis, able-bodied, and middle-class – those are a lot of privileges that could do with a good punching. Where I see hurt, though, I will call it out, and I will punch back. I urge you to do the same.