Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ On Being Offended

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 28, 2011

A comment on Chris Lott's post which in turn was a response to this and this.

I was born only 14 years after the end of the Second World War. Memories were still fresh, the rubble was still on the ground, and we were well into the Cold War and anti-communism.

Bob Crane as Colonel Hogan in disguise as a
Nazi officer in Hogan's Heroes. Source.
Why is this relevant? When I was a kid, the swastika symbolized little more than 'bad guy'. It could be used, it was used, to indicate (as was the case with the biker gangs (mostly from the same age group)) to show that you are a badass. As for its use in humour, heck, Hogan's Heroes was on TV, and of course we were being treated to a host of very good movies about the war.

It is only in the last 20 years or so that the swastika has been so demonized that its appearance on a wall or in a blog post warrants a news broadcast of stinging denunciation.

It's also culturally specific. I find the extreme aversion to the swastika to be localized to conservative Christian regions - ie., the U.S., and western Canada. In Britain there was outrage recently that a Prince wore a Nazi costume to a Halloween party, but it's more telling that he did, and thought nothing of it.

This is why Leigh can say he was just running a parody and why other readers can totally not get what he was thinking. We are tempted by the technology to think we are all the same, but there are generational differences and cultural differences.

So I think everybody needs to back off a bit...

Because, you know, I found it really ironic that on the very same day one of the complainants was publicly unfriending Leigh, he was also DJ-ing an 'all fuck' program on #ds106 radio. And to *my* generation, casual swearing isn't cool, it's not something we do, and we don't get that younger people just don't think it should bother anyone.

Me, I don't so much care about swear words, I'm not afraid of them, they don't offend me (hate, bigotry and corruption offend me), but I don't use them, and I even post 'language warning' on links to posts using them (I got some snark about that, of course, by one of the self-same casual swearing generation).

I mean, why go out of my way to offend anyone? I can understand, people do it, but it's not for me.

Protest over publication of cartoons in
Denmark. Source
Or, a few years ago, when I was in Denmark (total coincidence), the furor over the publication of photos of the Prophet erupted. Yeah, I know, they're just cartoons, they're nothing harmful, etc. etc. but I have chosen not to publish them, not to look at them, and for good measure, not to print the name of the Prophet. I mean, after all, why go out of my way to offend people when it's nothing - *nothing* - to follow a few simple courtesies?

Obviously, it's a judgement call. There are people out there who are offended at the drop of a hat. Search for "I'm offended" on Google and find 8,100,000 hits.  I've had people write to me and say "I'm offended" because I disagreed with them about some fact or interpretation of the facts.

But it's also pretty easy to not be offended. I mean, you have to go out of your way to be offended. You have to make a deliberate effort. But we live in this media-saturated culture and it seems that in order to be seen as having any feeling at all about something we have to have the most extreme feeling: outrage, offense, of some such thing.

So, again, why can't people back off a bit?

One the one hand, we could all be a little more sensitive to the things that offend others (and yes, I include myself in on this, because I've been known to stomp on the feelings of some people without having a clue that I've done it).

We should all adopt a bias for respect, rather than disrespect. Being free, being radical, these aren't about saying things that other people find offensive. They're about saying things that other people think are not true. It's a fine line, sometimes, to be sure, but let's learn toward respect.

And on the other hand, we could all be a little less easily offended. I know, it's hard to do when there are hoards of people (trolls, scumbags, and haters) trying to get your goat, to tweak your nose, to rub your face in it.

But, you know, when you're offended at everything it loses its meaning. There are some bloggers out there (I won't name them) who have been 'offended' so many times I don't know what they mean by it any more. Save your offense and outrage for the things that really matter.

The former rebel chief, Laurent Nkunda.- Uriel Sinai/
Getty Images. Source
Yeah, I know, maybe Nazi images really matter to you. Maybe Satanic scrawls on church walls really matter to you. I know, it grates. But do they matter, say, as much as actual torture, decapitation, dismemberment? You know, things that are *actually* happening in places like Congo, Afghanistan, Myanmar?

But what's the best response? It it to fire off reams of outrage? Maybe to protest in the streets or declare a holy war against the author? As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working for you?"

The thing with punk is that it's in your face. To some people, that's the essence of punk. But to me, the heart of punk lies in being free, not being offensive. We can all strive to be a bit nicer, to throw salve, not grit, into the mechanisms of our interactions.

An ideology based on nastiness is not for me. And it is out of the presumption that it's OK to be nasty that most of the things I find truly offensive find fertile ground to breed.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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