When is it ok to take offence?

People seem to get offended by all sorts of things. As I was cycling to school today an old man shouted at me from a beat-up old van to get off the pavement. Then he stopped to take my photo. I’m not really sure what he plans to do with my photo. Perhaps he’ll write a blog post and put it on his blog? I preferred the guy who whistled at me yesterday to one who shouted at me today.

I knew it would happen eventually but it still made me feel bad. I felt bad about myself; like I was doing something wrong. After all, most of us just want to do the right thing. But I’ll get over it and will continue to cycle on the pavement most of the time as there’s just no-where else to cycle. I’m very careful when I cycle past pedestrians.

Recently lots of people were offended by a shirt with pictures of sexy women on it; while others are offended by swear words, nudity, gay marriage, the word denier, and even compliments. This has got me thinking about what it means to be offended. Typically we feel offended when someone insults us. But what if someone says they’re offended by something that is not intended as an insult and which we don’t view as offensive ourselves? There has to be a point where we just accept that we’re not going to please everyone and to just get on with our own lives as best we can. If we tried to please everyone we probably wouldn’t succeed and we’d only end up making ourselves miserable.

Update: I was wrong; it is illegal to cycle on the pavement in the UK.

42 thoughts on “When is it ok to take offence?

  1. I think I know what prompted this ๐Ÿ™‚ In my opinion there is a major difference between something that is universally regarded as offensive (discriminatory terminology) and something which might offend an individual. In the former case I think we as a society can decide that certain words are simply offensive. In the latter case there’s nothing wrong with deciding to offend an individual. It might not be nice, but it’s not fundamentally wrong. In the latter case, there’s also always the possibility that people are trying to control the dialogue by arguing that a word is offensive, rather than the word actually being offensive. I do think it’s also important not to mix the different situations up. There’s a massive difference between terminology that describes something about which people have no control (their gender or their race) and terminology that describes what people have chosen to do (believe in something).

    1. Yes, well that prompted part of it but this is something I’ve been thinking about for a little while. It would be easy if the rule was – universally offensive = offensive – but sometimes lots of people might be offended by something but not everyone. It’s a very subjective thing. The shirt worn for the comet landing for example. That’s just not offensive in my view.

      I’ve also had people tell me they’re offended by gay marriage – people I would otherwise consider intelligent and reasonable. I try to understand when people say they’re offended by something, especially if it’s something I’ve done, but sometimes I just want to say “get over it”. Swear words are another example. When used to describe inanimate objects, I can’t see anything wrong with swear words. They’re just words. Of course it’s different if they’re used to describe a person and then it’s a deliberate insult.

      And denier of course is a word that I just don’t view as offensive. It might be possible to turn it into something offensive depending on the other words used, but when used as a category to help distinguish one group from another seems fine to me.

      1. The offensive shirt thing, and books I’ve read, got me thinking, along the lines that actually there is no such thing as universal offensiveness – sometimes people don’t realise what they are saying and maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Recently I offended someone. I spoke without thinking and I was wrong. But I am not going to censor what I say in case I offend someone, I’ve had too much of that in my life. The key is, that if someone finds what you say offensive, then they should tell you, and you can either explain what you meant, or apologise. I’m leaning towards that rather than a universal idea of what is offensive. More communication. Maybe I am being simplistic, though.
        I am sorry someone shouted at you Rachel on your lovely bike, that is a horrible experience.

      2. Ah, thanks so much Denise. There is no such thing as universal offensiveness, I do agree. There’s no one size fits all.

        Yes, I was really upset about being yelled at. Not offended though ๐Ÿ™‚ I seriously considered cycling all the way to school on the road today but I’m over it now and I mostly kept to the pavement.

  2. Being offended, if it is genuine rather than fabricated for effect, is a personal response that varies from person to person and I do not think needs justifying. How we deal with it, effects ourselves and others and may need justifying but always benefits from a good dose of sanity.

    Having some respect for the sensitivities of others is part of being social animals, even if we don’t understand that sensitivity ourselves. On the other hand being criticised before being politely requested to desist is only oppressive. Using a supposed sensitivity or an exaggeration of it, a weapon of emotional tyranny. Finding balance seems a perpetual pursuit.

    Merry Xmas and, may whatever you believe, in bless us all everyone. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Merry Xmas to you too Graham!

      I still like very much your comments recently about adjusting our behaviour to suit the people we encounter. But we do need to be ourselves around the people we live with everyday and fortunately my immediate family feels the same way I do about most of these things and that makes a big difference. I can even swear as much as I like at home without offending anyone. My husband swears more than I do ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Really, how bl**ding rude. ๐Ÿ™‚

        An Australian female friend, after a meal in a restaurant, would announce loudly “I’m as full as a bulls bum”. The rest of us had to explain it to he Indian waiters. We thought they might be offended but instead they just giggled. It seems there’s no accounting for taste. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I trust by “pavement” here you mean “sidewalk” to my N. American English ears? I am currently in Edinburgh and I am constantly on the (UK-meaning) pavement, because as you say, there is no where else to cycle. My response is the same as yours: make biking safe somewhere else and I’ll gladly bike there instead. Until then, you offend me by being offended by where I bike! I am heavily biased on the topic because I spent three months in Copenhagen before moving to Edinburgh. Edinburgh is probably not such a bad place for cycles, but the comparison makes it look like hell.

    1. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one! Lots of people here cycle on the pavement too (=sidewalk) and I would prefer to cycle on a cycle path but there isn’t one. It’s not illegal to cycle on the pavement but the city council website does say not to. If I get stopped by the police and told to cycle on the road than I will. But I’ll only irritate the cars if I do that as they’ll be stuck behind me.

      Isn’t Edinburgh too hilly for cycling?

      1. I find the hills pretty tame compared with home (Seattle). If a police officer tells me to move off the sidewalk I’ll probably act like an ugly American and tell them (politely) that first they have to enforce laws (are there any?) about parking in the bike lane! (I would not do this at home of course, where all the police have guns…)

      2. I don’t think the police here would say anything. I cycle past a police station everyday and have cycled past a few of officers and they’ve all smiled at me. And I don’t think it’s illegal anyway.

      3. Edinburgh is definitely not too hilly for cycling ๐Ÿ™‚ Having visited San Francisco, which is full of cyclists, it’s not too hilly either!

        If you’re interested in the rules of the road in the UK as a cyclist, then have a look here: https://www.gov.uk/rules-for-cyclists-59-to-82/overview-59-to-71 Cycling on the pavement is definitely illegal “You must not…“, but the problem with enforcing that is: where are children supposed to cycle? They’re not responsible enough to mix it with motor vehicles, but it’s technically illegal to be on the pavement? So, one of these rules where some (a lot) of leeway is given, but winds up the saddos with nothing better to do (and who probably speed, run red lights, park on the pavement, etc. making them hypocrites as well as saddos…)

        IMO, however, cycling on the pavement instead of the road has the consequence of legitimising the “car is king” mantra, and that bikes should not be on the road. Cyclists have every right (more, in fact) to use the road and we should do at every opportunity. If it slows down and pisses off drivers, then it’s tough titties for them. Maybe they should cycle instead of driving and they might get places quicker ๐Ÿ˜‰

      4. Maybe I should brave the road? I do on occasion when it looks ok or when there are too many pedestrians on the pavement. But after today I’ve been thinking about it some more. If I didn’t have my kids on the bike I wouldn’t hesitate. Maybe I’ll try it out ofter dropping them off at school.

  4. I gathered that there is no cycling culture in the country; so what do people expect from the few existing cyclists? To mix with cars and complain about it? It seem that you are pioneering a new habit in Aberdeen..Some new idea to bring to the city hall? You are a citizen and also have the right to use you bakfiets as much as cars have the right to use the roads. The city just needs to define where you can cycle safely.
    As for your question, I side with your answer. We can’t please everyone, and certainly shouldn’t take their sensitivities personally, because what GrahamInHats said is true: ” On the other hand being criticised before being politely requested to desist is only oppressive. Using a supposed sensitivity or an exaggeration of it, a weapon of emotional tyranny. Finding balance seems a perpetual pursuit.”

    1. No, there isn’t a cycling culture here like you have in Amsterdam. Some places are pretty good, like York and Bristol, but in most other places cyclists are rare. It’s better than Auckland though where cyclists are almost non-existent.

      Yes, Graham’s words are great. I had to read it a few times before I figured it out though.

  5. I know that in the UK they are a lot more aggressive about how other people use the public space. That is also a trend for inner cities in North America. I live inner city and we have the police non-emergency line on speed dial, and the city help line as well. (I once had to call the police because I came home to homeless people having sex in the park behind my house.)

    I generally look at intent where possible. Its important to understand why they might be offended. Unless you hurt someone I wouldn’t worry about it.

    Shortening a story… I was irate, and handling my son roughly in the mall across the from my house. I was goose stepping him home. And some man came out and started hurling insults, and yelling at me. I later realized he was filming me, and he told one of the stores to dial 911. To his eyes, I could have been an evil abuser, or an abductor. I felt bad on so many levels, but I guess I’m glad that someone would do that if a stranger grabbed my kid. (No harm other than the fear of me, came to my son, and we’ve been working through a lot of issues with him largely because of his mild ADHD. The results so far have all been positive.)

    I also have this shirt because I play a lot of video games, and yes.. I rack up a lot of head shots… But dang if I felt too embarrassed to wear it;

    I’m sure Jo’s fly by was inspired by her jerkitude, and not an actual offense. Jo is a potty mouth happy to hurl insults faster than innuendo. Asking you why labels are allowed is a way of bullying you, and hurting your feelings. She is belittling something you care about pure and simple.

    1. Wow, I’m impressed that someone tried to help your son. You might have been a stranger abducting him for all he knew.

      I’m not bothered by Jo at all. She didn’t hurt my feelings. The man who shouted at me to get off the pavement upset me though. And now someone on Twitter has basically said I deserved it because I’m breaking the law. Evidently it is against the law here. I could cycle on the road but I’ll hold up all the cars who won’t be able to overtake me because they dare not and the road is too narrow and I’ll only upset them.

  6. I think generally to get on on life it is best to aim not to offend people but nowadays many folks claim offence when someone has simply done or said something they disagree with or find annoying. unfortunately in any kind of remotely free society there are always going to people we disagree with although I fear we are becoming less and less free with the rise if the offence culture and the legal system pandering to it.

    the prase ‘denier’ incidentally doesn’t do the user any favours because it makes them sound as if they believe they are in possession of a religious truth, not a scientific theory. it’s just a meaningless denouncement as once we would have pointed at people and labelled them ‘witch’ or ‘heretic’ or more recently anyone on the other side politically was a ‘commie’ or a ‘nazi’. calling someone names almost never pursuades them of your case or of your intellectual credibilty.

    don’t get why some people get so upset by bikes on the pavement – 400 pedestrians killed by motor vehicles each year in the UK, 100 of them on the footpath, but that seems to be tolerated whilst bikes are the devil incarnate – very hard to understand – a couple of years ago a young lad came off a raised pavement (raised a metre or so from the road) and was quite badly hurt but the letters in the local paper, from people in a town where the pavements are littered with parked cars, were horrible and cruel about the poor kid riding his bike on the path. As Jim Morrrison once said, people are strange

    1. FYI denial is a defined psychological term, IOW it is very much scientific. Like e.g. “psychpoath” it isn’t very nice when applied to individuals, but when the shoe fits… and on Jo Nova the fit is very good indeed. Your “witch” and “heretic” examples are apposite only insofar as they demonstrate the problem with applying labels inaccurately.

    2. Yeah, I don’t get the anger some people feel towards cyclists. They’re doing motorists a favour by making the traffic one less car bad.

      I disagree with you about the word denier in that it’s not name-calling. Wikipedia defines name-calling as “Name calling is abusive or insulting language referring to a person or group, a verbal abuse.” Denier does not fit this definition in my view. In most cases where I have heard it used it simply clarifies which group of people the person is referring to. We all deny things, even to ourselves, some more so than others.

      1. sadly if you consider the most common other context in which the term ‘denier’ is directed at people, that is at those who dispute the scale or even occurance at all of the holocaust, is hard to see it as not intended to be insulting.

      2. Actually, no, I don’t think of Holocaust denial at all. I actually think of denial that you have a terminal illness like cancer when first diagnosed or denial that a loved one has just died when someone has just died or denial that your daughter needs 4 crowns when the dentist says so …. and I can think of many others.

      3. While I live in Germany, where any comparison to the Nazi area basically forbidden and is answered with something like: that trivialises the singular evils of the Nazi’s, I had never, ever associated the neutral word denier with a Holocaust denier.

        If it not completely neutral then by the association with being in denial, like Rachel points out.

        Otherwise a denier is just a person who denies something, typically something close to the topic being discussed and something most of the people at that place agree upon. In a forum of the Dragon Slayers, who deny that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, they are welcome to call me a denier of the fact that CO2 cannot possibly ever raise the temperature on Earth.

      4. > almost never pursuades them of your case or of your intellectual credibilty.

        That’s not the point either. Just think about contexts where it is used.

        Thank you for your concerns.

  7. This offense thing is funny because different people are offended by different things. And you don’t know what offends who until, well, you offend them ๐Ÿ™‚
    Personally I think this getting offended is a BS. Nobody can offend me unless I feel I am offended. So it is about attitude and choice: whether I want to play victim or ignore it and carry on. It is not about me it is about them and what they are going through.

    In everyone’s life there will be far more better things to be grateful for than the number of offensive things.

    I could not agree more with your great closing line. Nobody can please everybody.

    Merry Christmas!

    1. Merry Christmas to you too! And I agree, I don’t seem to feel offended very often. I was trying to think of the last time I felt offended and I can’t think when. I like to see differences in individuals and personalities and wouldn’t want someone to change their behaviour because I was offended – not that I can think of anything that would offend me. I get irritated quite often, all the time actually ๐Ÿ™‚ but that’s different.

  8. For some people, being offended is a form of bullying. They claim offence and then self righteously attack the person who disagrees with them. It is best, if you can, to just ignore them. Arguing with them just pulls you into their “game”.

    1. I’m starting to understand this, JC Moore. Most people don’t want to cause offence so to claim offence is a way to control someone else’s behaviour. I agree that ignoring it is the best thing to do.

  9. I agree that the term “denier” is a perfectly fair way to describe certain people, and accusations that it necessarily equates them with holocaust deniers are obviously bogus. Still, I think it’s a stretch to claim that it’s not a perjorative term – what we’re saying is that these people are not approaching the subject in a rational evidence-based manner but are instead taking a position based on gut-feeling, prejudice, political bias or whatever and rejecting facts which don’t fit their opinion. There’s a clear implication that this kind of behaviour is sub-optimal, and it doesn’t really surprise me that people think it unfair when the term is applied to them, even if some of the stronger objections are ridiculous.

    Having said all of that, in discussion forums it’s natural that, within limits, such labels are used to describe groups of people who share a particular viewpoint, and terms used to describe one’s opponents are rarely complimentary. I don’t think that “alarmist”, the mirror -term for “denier”, is really fair or accurate in most cases but neither is it beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in these kinds of discussions. I’ve been called a “denier” in a completely different context and I didn’t find it offensive, even if I disputed the accuracy of the charge.

    1. Yes, I think what you say is true. Being in denial about something implies that we’re not thinking completely rationally and that’s not such a good thing. I’m not sure that I’d describe it as a pejorative term but it’s probably not neutral as I said at AT’s.

      I never take offence when Skeptics call me alarmist even though I view it as inaccurate. I don’t moderate this word either and have no intention of doing so. It seems childish and pointless to make a fuss out of it.

      1. Yes, to an extent we have a choice about how to react and I tend to have a pretty high threshold for personal stuff, I get much more wound up over bad arguments (that’s why I don’t bother with Climate etc. any more – I could put up with the other commenters but Curry’s nonsense just got too much). There is certainly too much spurious (and willful) outrage and offence-taking in online forums in general. As far as possible I try not to take things personally and to be charitable when reading meaning into what others have written.

        Butโ€ฆI also appreciate that not everyone has such a thick skin, and that their personal circumstances and/or experiences may mean they react very differently to certain provocations. The shirt furore is a case in point – for a start, as a man I would be very reluctant to tell women that they shouldn’t be offended by it, and although I know that some women such as yourself didn’t have problem with it I can see why others might take a different view and I think the offence they felt was genuine.

        So it’s hard to generalise, although as a rule of thumb I find that asking the question “are they being an a***hole about it?” is a pretty good guide as to whether to take someone’s claim to offence seriously or to tell them to get over themselves.

      2. The arsehole rule sounds good. Although I can think of a time when it would have failed. Someone I respect and who was definitely not being an arsehole about it told me they were offended by gay marriage. As far as I’m concerned they just have to get over it. Sometimes people will claim offence because it’s something new or because society tells them they should feel offended, not because they actually are. The shirt incident falls in this category in my view. Although I realise it sounds a bit condescending to tell someone they shouldn’t be offended when they say they are but what else can you say to someone who says they’re offended by gay marriage?

      3. Sure, sometimes however genuine someone’s feelings are you just have to say “sorry, I just think you’re wrong”, although even then there are some people I would have more sympathetic for than others. In the end people can’t help how they feel, but they can choose how they express their feelings (or not). If someone is personally offended by gay marriage but still respects the fact that wider society disagrees and has chosen to give gay people that right then that’s fine with me.

    2. andrew adams: Still, I think itโ€™s a stretch to claim that itโ€™s not a perjorative term โ€“ what weโ€™re saying is that these people are not approaching the subject in a rational evidence-based manner but are instead taking a position based on gut-feeling, prejudice, political bias or whatever and rejecting facts which donโ€™t fit their opinion.

      If you go too far with this line of argumentation, one could say that you are not allowed to say someone (or a group) is wrong about a certain scientific matter, because that indicates that they “are not approaching the subject in a rational evidence-based manner”. Or at least you would not be allowed to say that any more once you know that do know the right arguments and evidence, but chose to ignore that.

  10. ‘Denier’ shouldn’t mean anything more or less than ‘one who does not accept, acknowledge or believe.’ There’s nothing inherently offensive about that, and deniers are only making things harder for everyone by choosing to take it in the worst way.

    To be sure, the ‘denier’ epithet is malicious when wielded by certain people, but malice per se does not suffice to do injury.

    For example, suppose I thought the word meant ‘person in the same moral category as Holocaust deniers’โ€”a connotation Rachel and others have made clear is the farthest thing from their minds, but to which some polemicists have specifically laid claim in explaining their use of the word. Then ipso facto it becomes quite a severe pejoration in my ideolect, but it remains the listener’s choice whether or not to take offense. (A wise listener, I think, would simply adjust their opinion of me downwards, laugh at the idiotic comparison and walk away.)

    To take another example, the commenter Steve Bloom apparently doesn’t understand the difference between ‘to be in denial’ and ‘to deny,’ and therefore seems to think the unadorned verbal noun has some extra medicoscientificky, pop-psychiatric baggage which he doesn’t deign to define, and which (in reality) it doesn’t have. So when Steve calls someone a ‘denier,’ he must mistakenly believe he’s insulting them; and if they then choose to *feel* insulted by his misuse of English, it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling mistake. Again, the solution: laugh at Steve.

  11. PS Brava for not nuking my comment, Rachel. Thank you. How refreshing to have one’s words moderated on their merit and not on one’s name. I was going to say something mean about you in an upcoming (parody) post, but if I go ahead with that please feel free not to take it seriously, personally or literally.

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