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The power of being offended

November 19, 2013

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.

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10 Comments
  1. Prolific Pete permalink
    November 19, 2013 6:57 am

    I guess I am sort of afraid of offending my audience. I had a character make a political comment in my book and I took it out so as not to offend 50% of the population.

  2. November 19, 2013 7:58 am

    Then, Pete, you are denying yourself freedom of speech. If we are going to mince around facts and remove anything that anybody might ever find offensive, we had better not write anything at all. But if we do that, we are helping to create an oppressive society in which no one can speak what he believes. And facts are facts. Opinions can be racist, but not facts. My characters in my fiction may have opinions and say and do things that are abhorrent to me, but that is who they are. On the other hand, if your characters are mouthing your own opinions and they are offensive to some, you are still free, in this country, to express them and take the consequences. Bottom line–somebody is ALWAYS going to be offended at something, anything, everything. Political correctness is taking us dangerously close to repression. Let your characters be themselves or they are nothing. Anyone who blames you for their actions and opinions is a mentally, shall we say, handicapped.

  3. November 19, 2013 8:04 am

    This post took me back to middle school. In seventh grade my English teacher presented an entire nine weeks of dark, “disturbing” literature. (The only title I recall was Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but I do remember other themes dealing with accidental impalement, teen suicide, other horrific deaths, etc.) When my mom saw the syllabus, she objected to the lack of balance in materials for kids of such an impressionable age.

    She read everything on that list and proposed alternate reading and work assignments of similar caliber. Mom took her proposal first to the teacher and then to the principal–with the backing of many other parents. As a result, I (and a few of my grumbling peers) got the teacher’s unfiltered resentment, along with alternate, tedious work. (Two years later the teacher confided–in writing!–that my mom also got the reputation of a “fearsome woman.”)

    Mom’s intent wasn’t to banish material she found offensive from the school curriculum. She wanted balance. She also wanted parental input in the literary diet being forced into her child.

    Decades later, “her child” writes an uplifting, death-inspired non-fiction blog (about what to say when someone dies). But much of “her child’s” fiction has dark, disturbing twists I’d not market to middle school kids.

  4. November 19, 2013 8:44 am

    The last thing I would ever do is compromise the integrity of my story by tip toeing around a bunch of sensitive bullies. That’s right, I liken it to bullying. In the need to become politically correct, the mass media has taken the role of policing creative inspiration by filling our children with this nonsense. I got on a rant, so I hope you don’t mind if I link to this post at a later time! lol

  5. Larry DeKay permalink
    November 19, 2013 11:35 am

    There are many ways this scenario could have been handled. One way would have been for a teacher or teachers to review our Bill of Rights with the students, focusing on Freedom of Speech. Unfortunately, that lesson gets glossed over somewhere in 12 years of education while administrators, faculty, and boards focus instead on indoctrinating the students to be victims and apologists for being in the greatest country on the planet. Oops, that’s not the populist, progressive, liberal, democratic, socialist, communist viewpoint is it? No, the students instead attend classes on white guilt, how evil America is and how to be a victim. Thank you for this opportunity to exercise my freedom of speech. If anyone is offended, you can always change the station.

    • Cynthia permalink
      November 19, 2013 1:47 pm

      Wow. This is getting ugly. May I just remind Mr. DeKay that “democratic,” “socialist,” and “communist” are mutually exclusive, that Democrats also believe in our Bill of Rights, and that it was liberals, in fact, who added freedom of speech to our freedoms. It was, in 1776, a radical, progressive, liberal concept, a freedom possibly never before attempted, much less granted universally and one that certainly would never have been granted by intolerant conservative thinkers.

      Finally, why must every discussion in this “greatest country on the planet” because viciously political?

  6. Suzanna crean permalink
    November 19, 2013 1:56 pm

    If writers dumb down their writing for fear of offending people looking for something to be offended by, we may as well stop writing. I have refused to take out certain words or descriptions that one or two people in my writing groups have be offended by. When you start watering down your writing and your characters, you lose all credibility as a writer. When we cannot present members of certain races or ethnic groups as bad guys or undesirable people, we are not telling the truth about the world we’re living in. If you can’t tell the truth, you may as well not write. Personally, I’m sick of political correctness.

    • Larry DeKay permalink
      November 19, 2013 2:14 pm

      “Personally, I’m sick of political correctness.” Amen to that! Oops, I may have offended someone with the word Amen. Let me try again. You go, Girl! Oops, that may have been sexist. One more time: You tell ’em, Sister! Oops, that may have been racist. Gee, I may not be able to respond without offending some person, group or culture or race. I guess I can’t respond. Oh, oh, oh, I got it. I’ll borrow from the politicians who spear head (whoops, probably offended native Americans, native Africans, Aborigines and Neanderthals. In fact any group that ever used a spear since the beginning of time.) political correctness. Are you ready??? “No comment”! Ta Da! I am finally politically correct.

  7. Chris Hamilton permalink
    November 19, 2013 2:48 pm

    First of all, just as a friendly reminder, this is a writing blog–not so much a political message board. But more to the point, there are trip wires for everyone. Maybe it’s communist, socialist, etc. Maybe it’s teabagger or the quote that Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Maybe it’s Billy Joel lyrics.

    Overall, everyone has something they will object to. The problem, to my way of thinking, is striking a balance. Because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should, but the writer I reference did not set out to offend Mexicans by implying they’re all drug lords.

    • Larry DeKay permalink
      November 19, 2013 3:00 pm

      Good point Chris. My bad for getting political. We get overwhelmed enough as it is with politics. I don’t need to bring it to this blog. Keep up the good work!

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