“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” – Salman Rushdie
What offends you? Think carefully now, I’m really asking you to find something that affects you deep inside your sense of self. I don’t mean when you publically fake offence to be polite (as when someone makes a loud comment about pie-eating in front of a fat person and you look shocked because you want to show you don’t think they deserve to have their feelings hurt, not because you really feel offended by fattist comments).
When talking about something as apparently universal as ‘offence’, I like to make sure everyone’s working from the same definition for the purposes of the discussion. Since this is a one-sided discussion, let me tell you what offends me and what that feels like.
I am not offended by much, it’s a short list:
3) The creative integrity of Hollyoaks
Racism and homophobia are my two major switch points. Racist/homophobic actions, thoughts and words are offensive to me and I believe they should be actively addressed and forcibly altered. I haven’t just been told that racism is offensive, I’ve been lucky enough to have been nurtured in a direction that means expressions of racism that I recognise induce a physiological response.
It starts very like anger, I get a punched-in-the-belly feeling and my face gets really hot. However anger is immediately useful, and eventually burns out, whereas offence is accumulative and constantly reignited. Anger releases stress, offence feels very impotent.
I will say I do not have an objection to being offended. I don’t assume that people cause me offence as a deliberate attack, I assume it’s because they’re stupid, and haven’t yet had the good fortune of me educating them. I can’t complain about racists and homophobes offending me, because I’m probably about to offend them right back by telling them how stupid they are, and I promise you I don’t care a tiny jot about them feeling offended.
Somehow, it’s become important not to offend anyone. I work for a large company, and if I persist in a conversation on a topic that a colleague within earshot tells me they find offensive, I can eventually lose my job. The right not to be offended is one that is protected by law, if I keep offending you, I’m guilty of harassment. This sounds reasonable at first, but my problem with this is that it allows the racists and homophobes to have their sensibilities protected, and I don’t think they deserve it. I’d rather give up my legal right not to be offended than let the stupid, ignorant and nasty keep theirs.
The last time I can remember being truly offended was on a train from Manchester to London when a pissed up Scottish guy started verbally attacking an Indian family. Obviously, his main insult was ‘Paki’ because he was JUST THAT MUCH of a genius. Nobody said anything to him. The father of the family was clearly wary, and there were a few tuts and the occasional hiss of breath from other passengers, but otherwise, his loud, sweary racism went pretty much unchecked, by everybody, including me; although I was genuinely offended.
Once, he got up to use the toilet at the end of the carriage, walking past the family, but was surprisingly quiet when in immediate physical proximity of the father. Otherwise, his verbal onslaught lasted almost consistently for about half an hour. Many people put headphones in; I’m not sure why I didn’t.
A girl came with a drinks trolley and someone further down the carriage had a quiet word with her about him, but she just sold the Drunk Racist two beers on her way past and actually appeared to be amused by him talking in a ‘language’ consisting entirely of the words ‘bingy’ and ‘bong’.
Drunk Racist belched the word ‘Paki’, laughed at his own great wit, and then crushed his can, before lazily launching it towards the family. It hit the mother on the leg and slightly wet her clothes. She said something to her husband, openly disturbed, and Drunk Racist shouted (in barely comprehensible English):
“Speak English. We’re in England, you Paki bitch.”
I was so offended, I snapped like a dancing-fat-girl’s g-string. I went for the racist cunt.
When I say ‘I went for him’, I mean with my mouth. Don’t be disgusting.
I presented him with a mouthful of words. I’m good at verbal man-baiting, which is the time honoured sport of using only words to wind a man up to the point where he wants to hit you, but he can’t, cos you’re a girl*. When engulfed with the red-mist of offence, I tend to forget that the more drunk and stupid a man is, the more likely he is to hit a girl, with no regard for how hard it would be to get blood out of a peach-coloured, vintage Vivien Westwood cardigan.
This guy was very drunk, and very stupid, and I told him that. I told him he was a drunken embarrassment to humanity, I insulted Scotland (to get at his Scottish pride, I didn’t mean it, I love Scotland), I told him people like him should be melted down and used for tallow. I swore at him, in front of children. The Drunk Racist (to use a charming local Manchester phrase) “got told about his dirty underneath”. I wrapped up my tirade of abuse at this creature with a favourite finisher of mine:
“The only reason to let a disgusting cretin like you live is to let you half-wittedly breed so your ugly, stupid offspring can be cannon fodder in pointless wars.”
He came back at me, and not with his mouth.
He unfolded his surprisingly long body out of his seat and drunkenly swung his fist towards me. His arm was grabbed by a large man who was sitting in between us. Large Man stood up and pushed Drunk Racist back into his chair. I’m lucky he did, because in the throes of offence, I’m always convinced that I can fight anyone, when actually, I couldn’t fight anyone. Well, maybe a small child, although not one trained in the martial arts.
Thanks to Large Man, I avoided a beating, and Drunk Racist looked pretty scared as a few other people piped up with “yeah shut up” and “idiot”. Shortly after, Drunk Racist got up for another wee and never came back.
I don’t feel much of a victory was had here for any anti-racist cause; what exactly did I achieve by raging against the offence machine?
When I told my friend about the topic for this blog, she said I should feel proud that I “stuck-up for the Indian family”. I want to be clear here, I did not ‘stick-up for the Indian family’. I didn’t give a shit about them, not really. I stuck-up for my own offence. This was not me articulately defending the multi-cultural rights of modern Britain, this was me losing my rag because that guy made my rage from the very pit of my stomach.
Drunk Racist will always be a drunk racist. Maybe he’ll think twice about being so openly racist on a busy train in the future. Or maybe he’ll just decide to stay sober enough in public to only be so openly racist around people he can beat up. Realistically, and sadly, the best I can hope for is that he’ll stay just the same and eventually offend a massive, muscle-wrapped meathead of a man and get beaten till he shits through his nose. I still don’t think he’d learn anything, but at least there would be some revenge for him offending me.
How petty I am when captured by my own offence! Ten years ago, my offence might have encouraged me to engage this man, to have a conversation with him, to see if I could change his mind. Ten years ago, I might have imagined that our train would arrive in London with us all holding hands and singing secular world music.
Now? I’m harder. I’ve wasted hours being nice to racists and homophobes, and watched reason and moderation slide off their thick skulls. Now? I explode like the powder-keg of resentment I am after years of just having to be constantly offended by these people. The best I can do is attempt to offend them back.
Since the incident, I’ve asked myself why I let it go on so long before I jumped up. If I was prepared to potentially take a beating in the name of offence, then why not shout at him straight away, or at least five minutes in? It’s a question I haven’t been able to answer. I’ve also wondered why the other people in the carriage who cried offence after a fist flew towards me waited that long too.
It would seem that offence works in mysterious ways.
*This may sound like the most sexist thing ever, but I blame the male homo-social cultural situation where fighting dominance STILL wins you points but girls aren’t allowed to play. Come-on boys. And mothers, sisters and daughters of boys.