The power of being offended
An author I follow on Facebook posted the other day that she was talking to a middle school group and brought up that one of her novels involved Mexican drug cartels. Several of the middle schoolers in attendance immediately and forcefully declared her work to be racist. Based on her Facebook post, she reasonably found the experience to be unsettling.
We’ve dealt with offense and writing on multiple occasions here, most recently with the ongoing battle over the nation’s capital’s NFL franchise. In responding to the issue, Skip Bayless, a former sports columnist and now a blowhard talking head for ESPN said, “If even one member of a cultural or racial group is offended by a term, then it should be offensive to all of us.”
I bring this up (yet) again because there are two disturbing and connected aspects to these stories, and they involve who’s offended.
In the first case, offense is taken by thirteen-year-olds. I don’t want to devalue our youth in any way, but at thirteen, a lot of kids are still figuring out how to relate to other people. Personally, I wasn’t offended by a lot at thirteen and when my mom expressed offense at Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young because of how it talks about Catholic girls, I recommended that she change the station. In other words, most thirteen-year-olds are kind of hard to offend.
There’s danger in taking a single incident and making it seem like a trend. After all, it’s possible that a classmate’s father had been wrongly arrested for drug trafficking or some other one-off that would lead them to declare a book racist based solely on the fact that a Mexican is the bad guy.
But there are Mexican drug lords in the world. Having one in your book is not even remotely a statement that all Mexicans are drug lords. But these are thirteen-year-olds, and it’s equally possible that they learned to look for things to be offended by.
Skip Bayless’s statement is also problematic. When you give a single person to decide what is offensive for that masses, which Skip Bayless literally does, you take a giant step toward killing any meaningful exploration of any issue anywhere.
Skip Bayless is a writer. He’s a talking head. He makes money writing and saying things–and some of those things are offensive to the people who hear them. That’s the way it is.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be criticized for things you write or say. The offended party has as much right to state their offense as you do to write what offended them. But the approach of the middle schoolers and of Bayless seems to be more than that. There seems to be a desire to remove the offensive content based solely on its being declared offensive.
A lot of the work we consider to be great was, at one time, considered offensive. If Skip Bayless had his way, my mother, a member of a cultural group, would single-handedly determine the Billy Joel song to be offensive to everyone. My mom was offended and that’s fine. She had a right to be. But she does not have a right require to others to share in her offense.
And while the thirteen-year-olds have the right to declare this author’s work to be racist–even if they haven’t read it–they don’t have the right to do anything more than that. And they really ought to read the book first.
If we don’t have the freedom to potentially offend people in this craft, we might as well not bother.