“Why are you people so offended about everything?” This is a common rhetorical question that is bantered about the internet about just about everything. Whenever someone shows the tiniest sign of being upset in their criticism (and sometimes even when they don’t), they are accused of just getting offended about something, after which their argument can be dismissed as simply a result of high emotions instead of logic. It’s gotten to the point where “offense” has abandoned any usefulness, at least from my perspective.
Think of the last time that you had a problem with what someone said. Did you object to it on the grounds that “this was offensive”? Think of the last time somebody said that they were offended to you. Do you have a clear example in mind? For me, I can’t think of either.
I may as well lay my cards on the table for context. I’m a leftist progressive concerned with social justice issues. I support feminism, LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, and humanism in general. I am regularly called an SJW (enough that I cohost a podcast called the SJW Circle Jerk, which you definitely should not listen to). I’m a millennial. I fit a lot of the caricatures of the early-20s kid looking for radical social change. Why is someone like me dismissing altogether “being offended”? Isn’t that what we are all about? Aren’t we offended about improper pronoun usage or that women get catcalled regularly? Well, we are, but being offended is not the point of our disagreement.
For atheists who might have qualms with the more social-justice side of the movement and may find this confusing, I’m going to try and illustrate this with an analogy that will make more sense to them. Take a look at the work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation or the American Humanist Association Appignani Center. They frequently challenge religious privilege* by writing letters and issuing lawsuits involving government displays of religious symbols, prayers at public schools, and any other violation of church and state. I challenge any atheist to look up a news story involving these organizations, and look at the comments. You’ll find religious zealots jeering at the atheists and secularists getting so offended at their god or their Christianity. It doesn’t matter on what grounds the FFRF or AHA objects to these violations, according to the lay Christian people are issuing lawsuits because the atheists are so goddamned butthurt that there’s a cross somewhere. They think so deeply that atheists’ real problem is religious symbolism period that they seem to think that it’s a victory when religious displays are visible on private property, even though it’s been repeatedly explained that all we want is separation of religion and government, so private property is perfectly fine to us.
I personally was in an argument with a religious person that went exactly like this. A person was upset about secularists wanting to take down a nativity display from a local courthouse. She went on about HOW “atheists and secularists are just acting this way because they’re OFFENDED.” It took me multiple times explaining to her that the issue wasn’t that we were offended. We want this display off of government property because it’s unconstitutional, and it’s unconstitutional because we value religious freedom and government endorsement of one religious viewpoint over another dissolves that.This is exactly what social justice activists face when they raise concern over something seemingly innocuous, in the same way that a mere cross in a local school seems harmless. We recognize that we still live in a society that is deeply racist and sexist, or otherwise marginalizes certain groups over others, and we wish to challenge that privilege. Our concerns aren’t that some incidental phrase is offensive to us, we just want to minimize damage to certain people that have faced institutionalized damage. We challenge “offensive” rhetoric because changing the mainstream narrative, however innocuous an offhand statement may seem, seems like a decent way of going about doing something. If someone speaks out against street harassment, it’s not because it’s offensive to women (even though it is), but because it makes women feel unsafe, promotes the narrative of women as sex objects, and enforces patriarchy in general. When we correct someone misgendering another person, we do so not because it’s offensive (even though it certainly is), but because doing so erases trans identity, and further promotes violence and abuse against trans people by dehumanizing them.
Someone may want to challenge me on the existence of these privileges, and that’s to be expected. I’m not intending to argue about those in this piece. What I’m more interested in challenging is the idea that people get outraged or mobilize because they are merely offended about something.
I am going to try and take “offended” out of my vocabulary. For one thing, I’ve never complained that something was offensive. I’ve complained that something is harmful for certain people, or that it marginalizes people, or it enforces a false narrative. Like the government displays mentioned above, I’ve never spoken out against violations of separation of church and state because the baby Jesus offends my heathen sensibilities. I’ve spoken out against it because we function as a society better when religion and government are separate, and diversity of religious opinion is allowed to flourish.
I’m going to stop using “offended”. Not because it has been a problem when I used it. I’m going to stop using it because I overwhelmingly see it used to accuse someone else of objecting to a problem merely because their feelings got hurt. It’s an easy way to dismiss an otherwise defensible argument. All you have to do is tell the person that you don’t care if they’re offended, knock down the strawman that you’ve constructed, and walk away with your chin held high having “won” the argument. This is largely one of the ways that social justice activism has been dismissed. Shitlords have the easy job of painting the whole community as simply “being offended”, and after that the whole movement is able to not be taken seriously because it’s a bunch of whiny millennials being upset and they just can’t handle being upset.
At this point, I should be clear that this is largely based on my perspective and experiences. I rarely see people cite “being offended” as the foundation of any of their arguments, but perhaps other people do. I’ve stopped using this terminology, but that doesn’t mean you should. But before you make your decision I’d like to challenge you to pay attention to how people use the word “offended”. The next time you see someone call something offensive, look at who is saying it. Is it the person who has a problem with something? Or is someone objecting to that concern and just saying “stop being so offended all the time!” Is the “social justice warrior” telling someone to stop being offensive? Or is it the anti-SJW who is whining about getting all offended these days? If people are genuinely citing offense as the reason for their concern, then by all means you should continue as you were. However, I’d really like for you to take a look at the people speaking out and their reasons for doing so. If you see people calling out problems, but calling them out overwhelmingly for actual reasons other than hurt feelings, then maybe you should stop calling people offended all the time as well.
To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s 100% okay to be offensive all the time. I’m interested in productive conversations, and conversations where name-calling, slurs, and personal attacks tend not to get anywhere. I’d argue that if you want a good, open conversation where everything is open to discussion, the best way to go about doing that is to do it without putting any party on the defensive, and without making anyone feel attacked.
At the same time, there is a time and place for offense. I’ve even written an entire post on why offense is not only not against social justice, but in fact a tool that social justice activists often use. Sometimes people need to be offensive. If someone thinks killing lumps of cells housed in a uterus amounts to murder, then granting women bodily autonomy will inevitably offend that person. To the fundagelical, the mere existence of an atheist is offensive. But these conversations need to happen to change hearts and minds, so their offensive nature should not deter us.
Ultimately, I’ve simply been tired of people just accused of merely being offended all the time, regardless of their reasons. For a community of supposed skeptics, we should eschew “mind-reading” and trying to look into the motivations that others have, since we aren’t going to be able to truly know what someone is thinking until those brain scanning technologies get off the ground. Until you can demonstrate that someone just wants to be outraged, then you should engage with what they are actually saying. If they truly don’t have anything substantial to back them up, then by all means dismiss them. But until then, leave “offended” at the door.
As an necessary addendum, I can’t speak for every social justice minded atheist/humanist. There certainly are going to be people who do act this way. I like to think that secularists are much better at this than random Tumblrites, but again, this is my experience.
*By the way, work towards Separation of Church and State is also a form of social justice activism. Along with organizations like American Atheists, these organizations are working to decrease the elevated privilege of religious persons over nonreligious persons. In fact, pretty much any activism that people would categorize as “atheist activism” is social justice activism.