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3 Ways To Know What’s Actually Offensive


If your childhood was anything like mine you heard this one more than once: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” It was most likely taught to you as a fitting retort to those who would tease or say unkind things.

It’s puzzling, then, how many of today’s adults seem to have forgotten it. You know the drill: someone says something someone else doesn’t like. Offense is taken and indignation expressed. Sometimes an apology follows, sometimes not. When it happens in the public eye, the media get involved and talking heads weigh in with their various opinions. Even the average citizen who is not in the public eye can by virtue of one utterance find himself in the middle of a good ol’ knock-down-drag-out Facebook fight. In the end, though, not much is accomplished except that we have catalogued another example of what must not be said for fear of offending someone.

What It Takes to Be Offensive

This leads me to wonder: what does it actually mean to be offensive? These days it doesn’t seem to take much. A few years ago, I was taken to task on an email list for referring to a person who has Asperger Syndrome as an “Aspie.” Never mind that one of my children has AS, affording me what I thought was a measure of understanding of the topic. Nonetheless, I was told that in using such a moniker I was being insensitive and disrespectful to my own child. That was news to both of us, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. These days it takes very little to cause offense.

You might discover that you are offensive, for example, when you dare to espouse an unpopular point of view or display a sign in your privately-owned business that reflects your personal opinion. Or you might discover you are offensive when you kid around about your job on social media or tweet an ill-timed joke. Sometimes such a gaffe can just about destroy your life.

I find it ironic that, at a time when there are very few remaining limits on public nudity or vulgarity and almost no cultural consensus on what constitutes morality, there are so very many words and ideas that must not be tolerated. The explanation for this disconnect is, of course, political correctness. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others (and the more equal ones get to say and do whatever they want).

As a writer and former English teacher, I do not need to be convinced that words have power. That old children’s rhyme notwithstanding, words can hurt. I learned that firsthand in junior high school when a lot of mean ones came my way. But as I reflect on those days, I don’t think it was the words that hurt as much as the attitude beneath them. What was most painful was not being called names but being disliked and excluded. The words were merely an exclamation point to something that really required no words.

Here’s What’s Not Offensive

Back to the question at hand. What does it mean to cause offense? Sometimes the best way to define something is to consider what it is not. In that spirit, then, here are a few things which, in my opinion, offense is not.

1. Offense Is Not Disagreement

For someone to share an opinion that, however wrong and misguided, is different from one you hold is not offensive. More than once, particularly online, where many of us tend to be a little bolder in expressing our views, I have seen someone criticize a lifestyle choice only to be upbraided for being narrow-minded and judgmental.

News flash: for a friend of yours to say that she doesn’t like tattoos, processed food, yoga pants, hip-hop, or Jane Austen, does not mean that she thinks you are a bad person if you like those things. It just means that she doesn’t like them. Even if she is really snarky in the way she expresses her opinion, who cares? Since you like the thing she doesn’t, she has probably shown herself to lack discernment in your eyes. So don’t bother worrying about what she thinks. She can’t stop you from doing your thing, right? Roll your eyes, forget about her, and move on with your life.

2. Offense Is Not Just Speech

Again, I am a person who loves words and understands their power. Words start and end wars, launch leaders, soothe aching hearts, and send lovers to the altar. They chronicle our past, crystallize our innermost emotions, and carry our prayers to God and His Word back to us. Still, it seems that we have come to a point of ascribing even more power to human words than they deserve. Speech without the power of the law to enforce it is just speech, and in this country free speech is still (theoretically) protected.

3. Offense Is Not Stupidity

Stupidity doesn’t deserve the energy and effort required to be offended. When someone says something stupid, our best response is to dismiss it and move on. That is not to say that there is no place for at least trying to disabuse someone of his stupidity. But you can do that without being offended. In fact, you can probably do that most effectively if you are not doing so from atop a perch of self-righteous indignation.

So, What Is Offensive?

So if offense is none of the above, what is it? In short, offense is personal, and it is intentional. If someone drops a banana peel and you slip on it, it is silly to be offended. The person who dropped the banana peel did not target you. Alert him to why he should put his banana peel in the trash instead of dropping it on the ground. Let him know littering is bad. But don’t get offended. If, on the other hand, Mr. Banana Peel Dropper took pains to scope out your path, go ahead of you, and drop the banana peel right where he knew you would walk so as to cause you to slip, then, by all means, get offended! He’s a jerk and ought to be told so.

A while back, this someecard poster showed up in my news feed. It hits the “I’m offended” nail pretty squarely on the head:


The next time you are tempted to announce your offendedness to the world (or Facebook), consider a different path. The Bible, whether you believe it to be God’s Word or not, provides some useful guidance. In Exodus 20:16, Jehovah spoke this commandment to Moses: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” The faith to which I subscribe says that one way to avoid giving false testimony is to “explain everything in the kindest way” (Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism”).

Is it possible the person who caused you offense spoke or acted out of ignorance, accident, or mere stupidity? Perhaps you can give him the benefit of the doubt. Alternatively, you can consider turning the other cheek. This frequently misunderstood command from Jesus does not mean submitting to abuse but rather confirming that the other person intended you harm. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offering the other one is way of seeing if he really intended to harm you. In real life, this amounts to letting someone know you are hurt and giving him the opportunity to change his behavior before you accelerate to being offended. If he slaps you on the other cheek, offense may be warranted.

Ultimately, the greatest defense we have against being offended is our own ability to turn away. One of my own sensitivities is the use of vulgar language. I don’t even like the word crap (it pained me greatly to type that), yet these days it’s not just crap but lots worse everywhere I look, including in supposedly respected publications. But as much as I would like the rest of the world to share my sensitivity, I don’t expect it, nor am I personally offended when they don’t. Instead, I just try to avoid it by navigating away, virtually or physically.

In a world that seems to be rapidly losing any sense of the value of personal responsibility, one way to stand athwart the “blame everyone else” movement is to take responsibility for how you react to that which you may find annoying, hurtful, or even infuriating. Instead of going into a rage and making sure everyone around you knows about it, consider a different path. Stop. Breathe. Go and take offense no more.