Reflections on Offendedness

18:16 Mon 03 Aug 2009. Updated: 19:33 03 Aug 2009
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Several months ago I wrote a piece on Racism and Science Fiction/Fantasy. I wanted to write more about that, but it’s been tough for me to work my thoughts into something cogent enough to post; I still have at least one unfinished post on it lying around. Some recent online reading has helped me to identify one of the things that was disturbing me, however: the role of offendedness in the discussion. Its role in other discussions, including wider cultural debates, has also bothered me for a while, and this post is about my view on it and the path that led me to this articulation of it.

If you’d like to skip past the description of my recent engagement with this issue, you can go right to my conclusion.

A quick summary of what’s come to be known as “RaceFail 2009” is necessary here. I’m not going to name names because that would require more depth than I’m currently prepared to go into.

  • An SF/F author wrote a piece about how to write “the Other”.
  • A blogger read a book by that author and found that author’s portrayal of a particular “Other” wrong, hurtful, and offensive, and said so.
  • A large discussion (this is an understatement) ensued, quickly including accusations of accusations of racism, defensiveness, and dismissal of certain types of criticism.
  • Certain established SF/F authors closed ranks, more or less collectively excusing themselves from any wrongdoing and classifying critics in a variety of amazingly insensitive ways.
  • In further discussion, some of these established authors engaged in highly inappropriate behavior, including appearing to threaten the careers of pseudonymous critics were those critics ever to associate their real names with their critques.

For an online authors/fandom discussion, it was rather intense and pretty damn hairy. It was also highly educational. If you want more depth, I suggest you start with this post at rydra_wong’s LiveJournal and keep reading until you can’t take any more.

As my summary probably makes clear, I was “on the side of” the critics. For a variety of reasons, including the simple fact that any reader should be able to make criticisms of works without appearing to be ganged up on by the author and their friends. Further, while I’m quite aware of how painfully personal writing is and how difficult it is to handle any criticism at all, if you put your work out there you just have to be able to take the criticism without going off the wall (at least in public—going off the wall in private is totally acceptable).

On top of that, the “defenders” faction in this particular argument acted abominably in a number of ways that were hugely insensitive and wrong. It’s probably worth noting that when I started out on my own exploration of the whole thing, I felt myself to be siding with the authors/defenders, simply because I was naturally empathetic to their concerns and because at that point I hadn’t seen any evidence of wrong-doing, and suspected a certain kind of net hysteria. Suffice it to say that I quickly realized this was a different scenario.

I quickly found myself agreeing with the critics, often rather vociferously and in a state of disbelief at the arguments made by the defenders. There were things that disturbed me about some critic statements, however, and I’ve been wrestling with those, on and off, since.

One of them was and is the apparent privileging of the state of being offended. For the purposes of this argument I’m also going to include the state of being hurt by a work under the umbrella of “offendedness”; by “hurt” here I mean hurt by a work that wasn’t explicitly aimed at you personally—I’m talking about the usual case of responding to general fictional works, and not the edge cases of personal attacks on you as an individual by an author either within a fictional framework or otherwise.

Because this is difficult to discuss without examples, I’m going to make one up. I’ve arbitrarily chosen a sexist example, but this post is not about sexism per se, and where you stand on the topic of sexism is almost irrelevant to what I’m trying to focus on. I do not mean to suggest that there’s no baggage attached to this example, but if it’s likely to make you uncomfortable I ask you to grit your teeth and get through it, or to mentally substitute some arbitrary other prejudice for it.

Let’s say an author, A., writes a book in which a prominent theme is that women are unable to play chess at a high level (I choose chess because the notion is such a cliché). The book sets up various scenarios in which female characters fail when competing against male characters, in which the most sympathetic female character in the end comes to accept that she can never be truly good at the game, and in which it is unsubtly suggested throughout that lack of ability at chess is indicative of lack of ability at other unspecified “reasoning” tasks.

A reader, R., reads the book. R. is female and loves chess, and had been looking forward to a book about women competing in chess competitions (the book has been promoted as including this theme). R. reads the book and is upset by the views expressed in it; furthermore, having come to it expecting something entirely different, she is both hurt (because she had been looking to get support from it and got the opposite) and offended (because the book engages in blatant stereotyping and misogyny).

Are R.’s hurt, upset, and offendedness important? Yes. Not just to her as an individual, but in communicating her feelings to others, she may well be able to get them to notice the objectionable themes in the book that they might have otherwise missed, perhaps eventually sensitizing them to wider prejudice. R. may also become discouraged and depressed—in no sense am I suggesting that A. has “done her a favor” through his writing. For R., being offended may be a better outcome than simply being discouraged, since it’s likely to be more galvanizing.

So R. finds the book hurtful and offensive, and she and other readers may be discouraged, or galvanized, or both, by this. In that sense, the hurt and offense are important. They’re important to R. as an individual, and they’re important to those who care about R..

Despite this, there is another arena in which they’re not important in themselves at all. This is the non-personal arena of “what, if anything, should be done about A.’s book?“ Or the larger arena of how society should treat sexist or otherwise prejudiced books in general.

In that arena, the offensiveness and hurtfulness in themselves don’t matter. This isn’t to say that the book’s contents don’t matter. They do, and in terms of boycotts or protests they’re obviously critical. (I don’t believe in ever legislating against creative works, but that’s another issue.) The offense and hurt felt by people may help such activities, but I believe very strongly that they’re not actually the point, and that it’s very important to separate hurt and offense from what truly matters in the public sphere: the issue of right and wrong.

What’s “wrong” with the fictional work I described is not that it’s offensive. What’s wrong with it is that it promotes ideas that are untrue on their face, that support social values that are harmful, and that encourage prejudice. Those things are likely closely intertwined with R.’s response to the book, but it is those underlying aspects, and not the offensiveness, that matter in the public arena.

Put another way, any campaign for a boycott of the book should focus on how the book promotes misogyny and a sexist idea that women shouldn’t intrude on “male domains”—and not on how the book is ”offensive to women”. Partly because the latter claim can be derailed by finding a single woman to state she didn’t find it offensive; more because the former deal with the key issues involved, and are much more likely to result in meaningful debate; and most of all because of the subjectivity involved, which is to say: people can be offended by anything.

An author writes a work suggesting that humans evolved from other primates; readers who believe in the special status of humans and correspondingly themselves are offended and hurt by the idea that they are somehow related to mere animals.

An author writes a work demonstrating that Country X has engaged in deception/genocide/wars of aggression; readers who are invested in their own identities as related to Country X’s upstanding nature are offended by the notion that there are stains on their country’s honor.

An author writes a work promoting the concept that all humans, and all forms of conduct not directly harmful to others, are essentially equal and should be treated as such; readers whose cultures deny such equality in some cases are offended by the suggestion that they should change, or, they are offended by the notion that their culture’s conduct is anything but equal in some sense.

An author writes a work in which an extramarital affair is portrayed; readers invested in the sanctity of the marital bond are offended by the notion that such things could ever be discussed openly, as this surely heightens their acceptability.

There are countless other examples. Many of them could be extremely trivial. If you’re sympathetic with R.’s position above, or if you can imagine any similar scenario in which you could be yourself offended, the point is not that your sense of offense and/or hurt are on the same level as some of the other examples. The point is that by concentrating on your offended state in the public sphere, you are equating that state and your cause with any other cause driven by someone, somewhere, being offended by something.

If the reason you want to boycott something is simply because it offends you, how can you then deny the arguments of others who want similar boycotts against things that offend them, even if you support those other things?

If your answer is “because you are right”, or “because your cause is right”, that doesn’t work. You have to defend that cause—which leads back to the underlying issues that are in fact not tied to offense, but tied to what messages are good for society, what views are being promoted, what prejudice is being reinforced.

If something hurts and offends you, that does not make it wrong—but might be a very good sign that something is wrong with it. The wrong is not the hurt or offense caused, the wrong is something else, deeper down, that needs to be identified, examined, and discussed.

Doing that, dealing with it, and, if in the public sphere, engaging with it as a matter of public policy, is what’s important. Public policy should never be about what offends you, even if “you” here are plural and numerous, but about what’s best for most. That’s a much more difficult subject to tackle than whether or not it offends you, but it’s also one that’s much more worthwhile, for you and for everyone else.

Once more, in summary: your emotional responses to something are important, and valuable, but once into the public sphere what’s important is not you or your experiences or reactions, but what’s right; you and your experiences and reactions will hopefully help to illuminate that, but are not the core of the matter.

Two pieces that helped spur me to finally write this out:

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