How to Claim ‘Offence’ and Influence People
It’s been quite a week for offence has it not?
It’s not an easy subject to unpick, but I think given this week’s discussions on ‘mansplaining,’ a bitchy remark being misconstrued as ‘homophobic‘ and an entire political movement being accused of latent racism, it might be worthwhile spending five minutes considering exactly what we’re dealing with here.
Are you seriously trying to mansplain racism to me? For real? https://t.co/TLyeSfyoOi
— Sister Outrider (@ClaireShrugged) March 6, 2017
It’s pretty obvious to all people with even a degree of decency when a racist or homophobic remark has been made.
We’ve come a long way since the days of Shannon and Weaver’s model, where we reduce communication to transmitter, signal, receiver. We’re aware of cultural influence and the individual experiences that people bring to any text – be it a film, an article, or a tweet. It’s this personal fabric which explains why one person can look at a comment and find it humorous, while another is irritated. Context is important too. I laugh at a Frankie Boyle gigs: it doesn’t mean I’m on the side of paedophiles.
You may read a comment and feel angry, or confused, or irritated, or happy.
These are normal human emotions which you experience in day to day interaction with other human beings, be they online or in real life. I have a few colleagues whose political remarks over lunch I may strongly disagree with, but I can choose whether or not to engage in a discussion with them, or whether to ignore them and eat my sandwich. I am not offended by their comments. I disagree with them, but I exercise rational choice in my reaction to them. My choice is likely to depend on my mood and the time available to me to make the opposing case. It also depends on whether I believe the person I’m talking to is interested in engagement, or is an intellectual brick wall. I make the same choices online. I’m sure you do too.
When we talk about ‘offence’ however, and ‘offensive remarks’ we seem often to be discussing a more personal element to the communication, something which goes beyond a core subject and reaches into identity.
Not all parts of identity are fixed, and many can change over time. Offence seems to occur when a comment brings into question something the reader feels insecure about – their looks, their sexuality, their self confidence, their religion, their past or present political affiliations. If there is a part of your identity you are not completely secure with – your gender role, your belief system, your ethnicity, your politics – then you’d rather not discuss its complexities with another party. To do so would be to bring to the surface all those doubts and questions, and since you’re not ready to have that discussion with yourself, you definitely want to avoid it with another human being, particularly a stranger.
Being forced to look at these areas leads to fear, and fear very quickly turns to anger. We are now in the realm of ‘offence’.
Certainly we can dislike the way a conversation is going and perhaps try to extricate ourselves from it. Fair enough. But claiming to be offended is something else. Being ‘offended’ by something has become a social tool to disrupt and end an interaction. To say that someone has offended you is a way of throwing a social hand grenade. When it’s done online, it attempts to silence the person who made the comment, regardless of whether the comment would be construed as ‘offensive’ by most people. When it’s done with maximum fuss, by people who know that they are in the public eye, it’s done with one eye on the wider reaction.
Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out that ‘ no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ She was right. If you are secure in your own beliefs and identity, and confident in your position, you have no reason to be offended.
You can simply believe that the other person is wrong. Let that be their problem. The first response then, when considering accusing someone else of causing ‘offence’ should perhaps be to take a look at the root of personal insecurities. If you’re offended when I tease you about your belief in horoscopes, then perhaps it’s your level and detail of belief that’s at fault, and not my sense of the ridiculous.
Of course we are familiar with the ‘eggs’ on Twitter, those with pseudonyms and low follower numbers whose main goal in life is to cruise around and make comments which go straight to the arena of identity.
These people have always existed and always will: insecure bullies are everywhere. To interact with them at all gives them attention and brings them joy. So don’t interact. And if you can’t ignore them, then block. Continue to state your case. If you’re happy with your position, they are a mere grimace in your day, a wrinkle to be smoothed out and forgotten about. They can’t touch you.
To have a hissy fit, to flounce off social media, to create a storm through others when faced with trolls, is simply idiotic.
You give away all your power and all your self respect when you choose to have your voice silenced. Twitter is not a bar room brawl. You cannot be ‘hounded off Twitter’. You choose to leave the scene, whereas a person with nothing to hide, and right on their side, will stay. You may retweet your nemesis and block them for some peace, but they will refuse to voluntarily turn off and censor their own voice.
You may be hounded off, of course, if what we’re talking about is an offence of convenience.
Let’s ignore that what you wrote was perhaps wildly unfair and deserving of much scrutiny.
Or it might work like this: if you were a gay politician, and someone makes a joke about your son’s lack of public speaking skills, you’d either ignore it or punt one back in a similar vein.
But there’s fear there. Perhaps it surrounds the clips of barely disguised fury in professional interviews currently causing some amusement on Twitter. Perhaps it’s about past political decisions, issues which go right to the heart of the word integrity. Whatever it is, we don’t want anyone looking at it too closely.
— David Mundell (@DavidMundellDCT) March 3, 2017
So ‘offence’ it is. Let’s talk about something else. It’s so much easier to make you look over there.
Here come the newspapers, the righteous voices, the fake outrage. Meanwhile we’re not talking about policies which hit the most vulnerable in society, or a government steeped neck deep in hypocrisy over matters of sovereignty. The usual suspects can flutter their fans and claim shock, and the real villains can fly past under their noses.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it might be time to remind some women that flouncing out of interactions, jobs or positions, because of alleged ‘offence’ is to take all the bravery, spirit and outspokenness of feminists of previous generations, and throw it back in their faces.
Nothing worthwhile was ever achieved by running away, hiding, claiming to be ‘in pain’. I don’t care how many trolls you attract – there’s a block button and an off switch on your phone. Or there’s your wit, your intelligence and a fun evening ahead. The choice is yours. But claiming you’re being hounded is nonsense. The power is yours for the taking. What would have happened had the Civil Rights leaders, or the feminists of the sixties and seventies decided that their personal comfort was more important than the cause they were fighting for?
I’m not saying that the eggs aren’t sad little parasites, or that their opinions, language and interactions aren’t intended to wound.
But to proclaim that you want to empower people and then lie down to trolls is ridiculous. Stay online, stay in your job, stay civil, be the person defining the discourse and treating others with honesty. Have some backbone. Unless, of course, there’s a more politically expedient path. Unless, of course, that’s what it was all about in the first place.
This guest post originally appeared here.
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