Maybe ‘offensive’ isn’t officially the most frequently used word in the U.S. this year, but it was certainly thrown around news circuits and Twitter too many times to count. It may not have made its way into any op-eds or academic writing, but colloquially it’s been one of the hottest, most disruptive, and disputed words of the last few months.
Being “offended” or claiming that something is “offensive” has been labeled as the siren song of the left. This association is mainly due to the vocal social consciousness of the group; however, not everybody is receptive to this language. Out of this has come a whirlwind of what it means to be culturally appropriative, to respect other cultures, to practice tolerance, to be a ‘social justice warrior,’ and even what it means to be a feminist. There’s been such a movement for mutual respect, albeit not always a comprehensive or well-informed one, that people have begun to see it all as merely politically correct nonsense. The right has countered it all with the ‘snowflake’ claim that liberals are always playing the victim and need to grow some thick skin and not have their feelings hurt so easily. It’s become a classic back and forth of who’s right and who’s wrong that now skirts past the actual issue, so much so that instead of reducing conflict and preaching respect, ‘offensive’ has just become an arbitrary word thrown around that now only incites conflict and misunderstanding.
What does it mean to label something “offensive”? The criteria is pretty broad. Being offensive can mean anything from an offensive smell to something that directly attacks your identity and well-being. Recently, offensive is equated with insults, being disrespected, and having one’s feelings hurt. So what damage does this really do? And how can something so seemingly inevitable be stopped?
It’s hard to be receptive to everyone’s backgrounds and sensitivities considering the diverse society we’re a part of, but there’s a difference between misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge versus a blatant disregard for hardship. Take the confederate flag and its associated monuments. People are rightfully offended by the adoption of its presence, as it’s a symbol that perpetuates the idea of slavery and the reality of institutionalized racism in America. There’s no disputing the presence of something that advocates hate whether the argument be for tradition, lifestyle, or ancestry. Confederate paraphernalia doesn’t only make someone feel uneasy, it has direct implications on members of our society.
The heart of this conflict proves that if something is offensive and offends someone, it’s more than just feelings. Disrespectful words and actions often translate into a cycle of structural violence, hate, and stereotypes that have social and economic implications.
Whether it be jokes, mascots, monuments, or campaigns, offensive material perpetuates prejudice and continues to create hostile environments. It’s not about not liking what somebody has to say, it’s about being respectful and creating a space where everyone has the ability and opportunity to advance in our society without worrying about being discriminated against in the classroom or workforce or the street. At the end of the day, it’s time to stop throwing being offended around like it’s a shield that people will automatically be receptive to, but to consciously and directly communicate what it means to be respectful to others in the face of adversity.