4/18/2010

What is "Offensive"?

I had an interesting exchange with two friends on Facebook about what is offensive. One of those friends is a newer one I met through a transplant group and one is an old high school friend. We were discussing the neo-nazi rally in Los Angeles and a phrase used by the Associated Press in covering that rally. The AP described one of the white supremacists who removed his shirt to display the lightning bolt symbol associated with the SS. The AP described the symbols as "offensive to some." I said that the symbol would be offensive to anyone except the neo-nazis present and that describing it in such a way seemed to say that there would be those who are not neo-nazis who would see such a symbol as either morally neutral or even positive in some manner.

The responses were interesting. My old friend from high school said that the she did not find it offensive because, basically, free speech dictated that they should be allowed to express themselves however they chose outside physical violence. My newer friend said that the symbol was offensive but that people had varying degrees of what  they found "offensive" and great latitude should be given in calling something offensive.

Both missed the point of my opinion somewhat and pointed out the problem with the word. I like precise language. The word "offensive" has been watered down in our society to now mean anything at all with which we disagree on principle regardless of the intent with which any symbol or action is undertaken.


My new friend pointed to a person on a transplant group who was "offended" by a photo of a woman who had undergone a lung transplant and had posted a photo of her scars. The person had reported the photo, which was posted for education purposes so that those about to undergo the procedure could see what scarring occurs, as an "offensive photo" to the website and insisted it be removed (which it was).

Yet, I contend that while it may have "offended" that person's tastes it was not offensive because there was no malicious intent. In order to be offensive an action or symbol must be done with the purpose of causing anger, irritation, fear or disgust in the viewer or victim.

However, in our society we are now "offended" by everything and have been conditioned that any "offense" must be met with censorship or a ban of some sort. On the liberal side of things we have heard the word so misused by the religious extremists who are "offended" by everything with which they disagree and then seek to put an end to the "offense" that we are frightened to say that there are indeed times when things are truly offensive.

I would say that an SS symbol is and should be offensive to anyone who is not a neo-nazi. That is not the same as saying it should be banned. It is a statement that the symbol itself represents a truly dark period of human history that encompasses some of the worst mass murder imaginable. A person sporting such a symbol surely intends to offend others by causing them fear, disgust, or anguish. It is an offensive symbol and wearing it is an offensive act due to intent.

I recall in the 1970's when I was young and a fan of KISS. The double "S" used in their logo resembled the SS lightning bolt on the surface. I remember when they played concerts in Germany they were not allowed to use their logo because the two letters were deemed "offensive." Yet, they were not offensive. There was no malicious intent and certainly at least one founder of the group was Jewish! Offense was used in that context to mean that the logo bore enough of a resemblance to something completely unrelated that the uninformed might have bad associations.

I am "offended" by many things. Some of those things are not actual offenses at all. I find that skinny boys who wear their pants around their knees to offend my sense of style. I find that putting ice cubes in a fin Port offends my sense of taste. Much modern corporate rock offends my sense of music. But these are not real offenses as none are perpetrated with malicious intent.

Yet, there are times I am offended and the word "offensive" should be applied. When the Pope equates gay marriage with pedophilia that is offensive. That is not a difference of opinion or taste. He makes such a statement with malicious intent to harm large numbers of people and deny them rights. It is a patently offensive statement.

When I say that Sarah Palin is a media whore bimbo with the intellect of a brick I am being purposely offensive because I do have malicious intent in stating that - to cause anger and discomfort to those who support her and by extension label them as dumb as a brick too.

But, when Janet Jackson's boob falls out of her top at the Super Bowl, people howl that it is "offensive" - I contend it is not offensive because there was no malicious intent. After all, it is part of human anatomy we all have and probably have all seen or will see at some point. Likewise, many people are "offended" by women who breastfeed in public. I will admit that a bare breast in McDonald's can give me pause, however it is not "offensive" because the intent in feeding a child is not malicious in the least nor designed to disgust or anger others. The "offense" is only one of sensibilities and is subjective.

Likewise, while my own insecurities lead me to find public nudity to be unpalatable, it is not "offensive" if I should happen to see someone unclothed in public. (In fact, depending on the person it might be a treat.) Yet, too often we confuse personal tastes, foibles, and morality with actual "offense." 

To truly be offensive something must have malicious thought behind it. When things are done with the express purpose of "offending" in order to cause discomfort, anger, disgust, or fear then we should not shy away from labeling it as such.

Perhaps it is time we regained the proper use of "offense" and "offensive" and stopped labeling anything we find simply distasteful as such.

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