Posted by: Viktor Mar | 2012 April 2

Why You Should Stop Worrying About Offending People

by James Plafke | 5:58 pm, March 28th, 2012


Over the past couple of days, a few things happened. The Internet got collectively mad at something “offensive,” as it is wont to do, and the New York City Department of Education began its quest to try to prevent people from collectively feeling a bunch of negative feelings. Both of these anger-inducers share the thread of political correctness and being offended, two concepts which are — as people tiptoe around certain words so as not to offend and people who frequently get offended by things will probably be offended to hear – inherently flawed.

Over on Forbes, author Tara Brown wrote a somewhat scathing article regarding “fake geek girls.” The short of it is, as claiming to be a geek girl herself, she doesn’t like when other girls pretend to be geeks, citing their lack of knowledge or depth of immersion as indicators as to what constitutes a “real” or “fake” geek girl. She also states that girls will pretend to be geeks in order to get the attention of men. Some do, some don’t, and people on the whole — regardless of gender — take up activities they don’t necessarily enjoy to attract a mate. We also don’t need to get into the fact that what one feels labels his or herself as some sort of label, may not be what the next person considers worthy of said label, and how that is a two way street. Her argument, and the reasons behind it, aren’t what’s really important here. It’s that the Internet felt very strongly about Brown’s article, generally in disagreement with it, and let the world know. From an article on our sister site The Mary Sue, to responses from notable Internet personalities such as Leigh Alexander, the Internet sure took issue with Brown’s piece, but a few logical fallacies, misunderstandings, and “it’s perfectly fair for everyone to feel how they feel regarding this subject, so stop yelling at each other” aside, the real issue here isn’t about “fake” subsection of culture anything, it’s about the basic concepts that caused the mini controversy: Political correctness and trying oh so hard not to offend anyone.

Recently, the New York City Department of Education showcased this, with a list of 50 words and phrases they are trying to get banned from city-issued tests. This wordlist, which include such benign words as “birthday,” and “dinosaur,” and such benign phrases and topics as “computers in the home” and “homes with swimming pools,” is a pretty good instance of the issues with political correctness. Sure, the NYC Department of Education created such a comprehensive word and phrase list in an attempt to prevent any kind of negative feelings students may experience from viewing — and thus being made to think about — potentially harmful topics. This isn’t a bad goal, or even a bad train of thought; not wanting to make someone feel terrible is a pretty good daily goal. However, this list proves that there’s really no end to that goal, and preventing people from experiencing negative feelings based on something they might read or overhear isn’t something that can ever be achieved. Here’s why:

The “homes with swimming pools” topic appears on the wordlist because the NYC Department of Education feels it might make children living in impoverished families feel badly because their family can’t afford a pool, which also goes for the “computers in the home” entry. Already, there are a multitude of other words and phrases that one can plainly see are left out — any type of large appliances, specific electronics, even larger-sized homes and the quality of food the family buys. Should we now avoid discussing higher quality beef and organic carrots because they’re more difficult to afford? What about cars? Surely a vehicle is a fairly expensive addition to a home.

Then, if you’re trying to avoid using words that may hurt the feelings of some students, why would you stop at their household’s level of income? The word “divorce” is included on the list, because, obviously, it’s a delicate topic and many a household has suffered through the potential trauma of divorce. So, if we’re sparing the feelings of children from possibly divorced parents, why shouldn’t we also exclude the word “marriage?” If some child of divorce might feel saddened at the mere mention of the concept of divorce, couldn’t reminding them of marriage trigger similar feelings? This could easily lead to discussing love or relationships in general, as that might remind the children that their parents are no longer in either of those two things.

Moving away from the Department of Education’s list, there are some fairly common instances of people attempting to be politically correct, but doing it wrong or in such a way to where it’s actually indirectly offensive or insulting. Incorrect political correctness. One of the best instances of this is one of the most common: Calling someone “African American” when they’re not from Africa. In doing this, you’re trying not to say “black,” thus giving off the impression that you feel the word “black” is an insulting word worth avoiding, which in turn makes it insulting because you look like you think it is. The word might be insulting to some, sure, but no more insulting than calling someone “white.” They’re two benign colors, neither of which technically match the color of the people’s skin that the two words are used to describe.

If “black” is bad, then “white” should be as well. If calling someone “African American” is the correct way to identify someone’s ethnicity or skin color, then shouldn’t we refer to everyone using the same convention? I believe my family tree goes back to Ukraine, but anyone who sees me would classify me as “white.” I was born in Florida. Should people start calling me Ukrainian American? Should I be insulted if they don’t? If everyone in the world could answer those two questions, they wouldn’t all give the same answers, and that is one half of the main problem of trying to be politically correct, or trying not to offend anyone. It’s a matter of different strokes for different folks, and you can’t possibly and shouldn’t have to accomodate everyone.

The other half of the problem is that trying to avoid causing offense is a never-ending rabbit hole. What may offend one, won’t offend another. What won’t offend billions, may offend a select few hundred. It’s fairly rational to think that someone somewhere is offended by something that isn’t universally accepted as “offensive,” something that most of us may even say or do every single day of our lives. So, who are we to say that the small, select group offended by our actions that we consider totally benign are wrong in their taking offense, and who are they to say we’re being offensive in the first place? That’s the problem. Political correctness and being offended are all a matter of taste. It’s no different than what television shows you like, or what kind of seafood makes you gag.

So, should people just suck it up and stop being offended? Of course not, they have every right to be offended. But should those people be able to tell you to stop doing a thing you feel isn’t offensive? Of course not! You have every right to do something you feel is harmless. Therein lies the unsolvable rub.

All of the above isn’t to say that you should go through your life trying to insult people and trying to be politically incorrect — and there is certainly a time and place for certain subject matter — but basically, don’t fret not being perfect about trying not to offend people, because the concept of causing offense and being offended isn’t exactly perfect itself.

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