Responding to Common Arguments About What Is or Isn’t Offensive

So you’re out to dinner and your friend’s friend just said something offensive. Maybe it was a sexist remark to the waitress, a homophobic slur under his breath or a racist joke. Whatever it was, you decide to say something, because you’re a decent person.

A: (something offensive)

B: Whoa, come on, man; there’s no need for language like that.

A: Oh great, here comes the PC police.

B: Really, the “PC Police?” What are you, a hacky stand up comic from ten years ago? I just think saying things like what you said is unnecessary. If you’re upset, there are a million different ways you can express that; choosing one that is offensive to a lot of people is just needlessly mean-spirited. Political correctness doesn’t mean censoring your thoughts or emotions; it just means trying to express those thoughts or emotions like less of a jackass.

A: Whatever. I didn’t even mean it in an offensive way.

B: It doesn’t matter what you meant to say. That’s what you said. You don’t get to dictate whether or not other people are “allowed” to be offended. If you set a house on fire and people get hurt, you don’t get off clean because you thought the house was empty. You are responsible for your actions, and your words.

A: It’s okay, I offend all groups equally, I’m an equally-opportunity offender.

B: So you’re someone who likes to participate in the oppression of all kinds of different people? You think that excuses you? That’s a hundred times worse!

A: It’s just a word. You should care more about the real problems in the world.

B: That’s assuming that language doesn’t impact the “real problems” in the world. It does. It’s also assuming that I don’t already care about the “real problems” of the world. I do. It’s possible to care about big issues and little, everyday issues, and the real key is seeing how they’re all intertwined.

A: But it’s freedom of speech!

B: I’m not trying to make it illegal for you to say stupid shit; I’m trying to talk to you directly about why you shouldn’t. That’s a big difference. It’s legal for you to commission a painting of yourself riding a unicorn across the Grand Canyon, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. It’s legal for you to cheat on your partner, eat jellybeans for every meal and listen to the Black Eyed Peas, but that doesn’t mean you should do any of those things. And it’s not like you’re saying offensive things to make some larger point or comment on some grand, radical idea. You’re just being offensive for no reason. To hide behind the “freedom of speech” argument is pretty cowardly.

A: Why are you being so sensitive?

B: Why are you? Why can’t you just apologize for saying something hurtful? Why do the people who say or do offensive things always get so defensive? Why can’t you just admit that you said something you shouldn’t have, try not to do it again and move on? Why do people like you cling so desperately to your “right” to be an insensitive jackass and cry so readily when anyone tries to call you out on it?

A: Fine. But explain to me why it’s offensive.

B: Do I owe you an explanation? It’s not like anyone is arguing that you shouldn’t use the letter “H” or that all proper nouns are racist. That would be inconvenient. The language that the so-called “PC police” want people to avoid is stuff you probably don’t say that much anyway. For example, do non-Black people really need to use the n-word? Like, are you just DYING to use it all the time? Does it offend or sadden you that you’re not “allowed” to use it? Probably not. So don’t use it, ever. Believe it or not, it’s incredibly easy to live your whole life without ever calling someone a “fag” or saying that you “got jewed.” A person kind of has to go out of their way to be offensive, and that’s part of why it can be so frustrating to deal with.

A: Okay, okay. I’m sorry. But I’m really not a bad person.

B: Most people aren’t “bad people.” We all make mistakes, we all have issues to work on and we all could do better. The important thing to remember is that the impact of your language/actions is always more important than your intent. Friendly, decent people can still take part in oppressive systems, and language is one of the most common potentially oppressive systems that we have to deal with. We have to take responsibility for the impact of our words and actions, no matter what the intent behind them may be.

A: Thanks for the lecture, Professor Buzzkill.

B: You’re welcome.

(RELATED: “Invalid Pop Culture Arguments”)