On The Subject Of Being Offensive

I’ve had this unformed post in my head for a while, and I’m tired of it racing around the ol’ skull-track like a squirrel with a lit firecracker up its ass. So, here’s the post in all its unformed, uncertain glory.

Last week, I wrote a thing about Tomb Raider and Lara Croft. And I saw some comments around the Internet — not so much in reference to anything I wrote, but rather to the overall negative reaction to Lara Croft being used, abused, and downgraded — that chalked up the outrage to “political correctness.”

In a totally different thing, sometimes people send me things — via email, tweet, Facebook, psychic transmission — written by other people, and they’ll say things like, “This sounds like Chuck Wendig wrote it!” And what they send often has a certain whiskey-and-rage-sodden vibe to it, but also often uses pejoratives like “retarded” or “gay” or “fag” in the process. Which, to my mind, doesn’t sound like me at all.

And again, you might be thinking, “Well, sure. Political correctness.”

Let me stop you. Hand planted on your chest, me clucking my tongue.

Political correctness is a desire to minimize or eradicate offense.

I care very little about minimizing or eradicating offense.

I’m okay with offending. I don’t find that traipsing too gingerly about a subject does that subject any good. I’d rather expose something for what I feel that it is rather than swaddle it in gauzy, soft-focus layers.

Clearly, this blog is part of that. I’m happy to use sexual imagery or profanity — not as a means to an end but because it’s just part of the way I like to say things.

And yet, I no longer use words like “retarded” or “gay” or “fag” in my posts or my daily parlance (though once upon a time I, quite lazily, did in fact use those terms as clumsy and inept shorthand).

The reason I don’t use those words, however, has nothing to do with political correctness. It has nothing to do with me hoping to not offend you. Strike that from your mind. I’m not trying to “not get caught” saying those words. Some parents teach their kids not to say those things because of what people will think when they hear them — as if, were it more politically acceptable, the kid could say “faggy” all he wanted.

Rather, what it has to do with is that I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s the thing. Offending people? Happy to do it. With a shit-eating grin, as a matter of fact (and there is a turn of phrase that deserves reexamination — why am I smiling if I’m eating shit? What’s wrong with me? Is the shit mysteriously delicious?). But I don’t want to be mean. Or cruel. Or conjure up words that ding a person’s armor. I care little about minimizing offense, but I care quite a lot about minimizing people.

That’s why I don’t think the Tomb Raider thing is about political correctness — because I think it’s about minimizing women and, in a way, minimizing the men who play those games. That’s also why I don’t think that profane “in-your-face” blog posts that use words like the ones I noted are in what you might call “terribleminds-style” — sure, I’ll mock things within the industry or the bad habits of writers, but I won’t call those “retarded.” First, because it’s lazy. Second, because while that word may not seem to mean what it says, it still says what it means — and it’s short-code for being mentally handicapped no matter how you slice it. Third, and most importantly, because I don’t want to hurt people.

These words may still live in my fiction. Characters, after all, needn’t be so enlightened — my characters will say and do things I’d never do. They’re not models of civility. Nor would we want them to be.

But me, well, you’ll find I try to catch myself from falling into those patterns of ugly word-use.

You, of course, may do as you like.

I stop myself not because I don’t want to offend you.

Not because I care one rat pube about political correctness.

I stop myself because I don’t want to hurt anybody. Because it’s mean.

And because the world has enough of all that.

That’s what I’ll tell my son, too. Plenty of meanness out there without adding to it.

Just wanted to put that out there. Do with it as you will.

76 responses to “On The Subject Of Being Offensive”

  1. I don’t agree with the split between political correctness and not hurting people. It actually inspired a blog post on my part (http://taotesoul.blogspot.com). But generally, I don’t really see the distinction, except that it makes you feel better about your own degree of adding “meanness” to the world.

    But besides that, the extrapolation of the message of Lara Croft – that if one fictional woman is shown in a primarily sexual manner, then it is somehow a commentary on all women, or women as a gender – is pretty much as gratuitously politically correct as anything you could read.

  2. If anything, this discussion shows how little most of us are on the same page. It sounds like most of the folks who left comments are pretty clear in their own minds, and yet there seems to be some real disagreement.

    Maybe that’s in part because we often use the words ‘offensive’ and ‘hurtful’ in similar if not the same circumstances. Different people are offended by different things, and different people are hurt by different things. And sometimes what offends one person really does hurt another. Sometimes what gets said diminishes other people, and sometimes it diminishes the speaker, and still other times it diminishes someone else’s perception of who said what. Quite often people say offensive things for malicious and mean spirited reasons, or sometimes they say them because they don’t care who they are affecting. Sometimes something offensive just comes out without our having intended it. Sometimes we just don’t know any better. And sometimes its more about an audience’s world view that they are offended and its nothing the offending party did personally.

    It just seems too complicated an issue to hope for easy answers.

    And Chuck, from my point of view I would almost never say you are being ‘offensive’. Not to me, at least. I don’t particularly enjoy being offended, and if that was your intention, I guess you need to try harder (wink). But I WOULD say that you are a master of irreverence. And just maybe what you are calling ‘offensive’ is really only the tipping of sacred cows, a mildly shocking upset of our unquestioned comfort zone. And THAT I consider a public service. Its the anti political correctness. In most cases I can get behind that project.

    What you seem to be calling ‘offensive’ always appears to have a higher purpose. Its not gratuitous, and the shake up it gives seems only in the service of a deeper message you are trying to convey. A judicious use of profanity isn’t necessarily offensive, but it does wake the sleepy minds from their contented slumbers. You are almost always talking about something serious, and the way you get us to appreciate it is by framing the issue in unconventional clothes. Its as if you are trying to take our conventional filters and blinders off by introducing us to an alternate reality. If it sometimes takes a cattle prod, so be it….. Bzzt!

    As you so sweetly put it, “I don’t find that traipsing too gingerly about a subject does that subject any good. I’d rather expose something for what I feel that it is rather than swaddle it in gauzy, soft-focus layers.” And it seems to me that this job is done best with irreverence and not always by getting folks mad. If your purpose is to “expose” things you are trying to break our habits of thought that conceal them. But being ‘offensive’ is sometimes counter productive when your purpose is simply trying to open people’s eyes. It can backfire to the extent that it provokes unthinking and emotional responses.

    Being offended is rarely about our rational side. We inherited being offended when we evolved our fight or flight response. It just may not be the best way to encourage thoughtful discussion. The most it usually exposes is our deep animal urge to defend our beliefs rather than question them.

    And while being irreverent can offend some people, and it can even hurt others, its never about trying to do those things. Being irreverent is often more about rethinking an issue while being offensive has more to do with feelings on the receiving end. A person being offensive sometimes DOES try to hurt people, after all.

    I don’t think you are that kind of person. No, I would say that Chuck Wendig is an irreverent rascal, a bracing splash of cold water, a word miner picking away at the ground beneath my feet. I would not say that Chuck Wendig offends me.

  3. @Arthur, thanks for providing an excellent example of how “politically correct” long ago stopped meaning “stuffy, rigid and overly concerned with offense” and now means committing the sin of having any time delay between brain and mouth (or keyboard).

    @RGD: of course you can be offensive without hurting the person you offend. If somebody tells me a racist joke about Mexicans, I’m not hurt, because I’m not Mexican and it’s not aimed at me, but I’d definitely be offended (both at the joke, and at the thought that said dumbfuck thought I would find it funny).

    If you truly believe that nobody is offended unless they are deliberately deciding to be offended for nefarious reasons, perhaps the problem is not that everybody maliciously misunderstands you, but that you’re actually doing things which are offensive. (After all, you appear to be offended at hurt at your sister-in-law’s response.)

  4. I was always told that the phrase “shit eating grin” came from the way a opossum looked at you in the middle of the night when you shone a flashlight on them as they were eating shit. Having grown up on a farm, I heard lots of these flavorful savings and always asked where they came from. I may have had my leg pulled, who knows.

  5. And this, Chuck, is precisely why your ‘language’ doesn’t offend me. You use it for colour, for humour and because it is the way you speak – you don’t use it as a weapon.

    I am infinitely more offended by the idiot at the football game who uses ‘faggot’ as an all-purpose term of insult than I ever could be by your sweet uniporn. Which is, after all, on a site I come to of my own free will. It’s not like you sought me out just to get all up in my business with your writing advice judiciously blended with robot jizz.

    I’ll tell you what does offend me: the use of the term ‘political correctness’ to try to stop people from expressing genuine hurt or damage. I sometimes feel that we have turned the internet into some giant high-school where being cool is the only currency and heaven forbid that anyone should even suggest that there are some things more important than coolness.

    I try to be polite and respectful when expressing opinions but I’ll be damned if I will be silenced on things that matter by people who can’t tell the difference between a respect for human dignity and ‘political correctness’.

  6. I think the problem is that it’s so hard to see the line between hurt and offended. And believe me, if you don’t know if you’re offended or hurt, then you haven’t been hurt yet. I don’t think any words can actually hurt; it’s just how the person uses it. Such as if I was going to the park, and I ran across people who say “Yeah, me and my niggers are going over there,” I do not think anyone can find anything hurtful about that. Seriously, I can’t find anything hurtful at all about that sentence. However, a hurtful example is a person saying “Oh look, another late nigger.” That’s hurtful and pisses me off to the point of going down to North St. Louis, getting a shotgun, coming back and forcing that person to apologize to my dad (which may or may not have happened). Point being, offensive and hurtful are two seperate things. Offensive is using the word in a off-handed way with no attatchment whatsoever other than to add color or flair to your language (using it like damn). Hurtful is actively using it to express or add to a sterotype.

    There. That’s your definition. Now I’m off to get a cup of coffee before I pass out from using my brain too much.

  7. Thanks for this. I hate the phrase “politically correct,” or at least what it comes to mean. People have this idea that to be politically correct is not be in sync with the establishment, and in order to be “real” or unique you have to be the opposite, not realizing of course that using words that hurt and marginilize others is a tale as old as time and about as edgy as Dick Cheney.

  8. I agree with you 100%. In fact, I could take it a step further and say that people being politically correct around me are rude as well. They’re treating me like a kid who doesn’t know what I can or can’t handle.

    Still, those of us who don’t go mincing our words have the responsibility that we have to live with those who aren’t mature enough to face the straight truth.

  9. Good point well made.

    This is a big part of why I enjoy your blog and ebooks. Your work may be profanity-laden and riddled with some fairly whack sexual imagery, but there’s nothing mean about it. And while I don’t know you personally and am therefore judging you based on the words you publish here, there appears to be nothing mean about you. There is a big difference between useful, high quality, non-hurtful content wrapped up in a fun, sweary package and content that is hurtful, aggressive and exclusionary but wrapped up in a fun, sweary package.

  10. On the subject of being offensive: “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that,’ as if that gives them certain rights. It’s simply a whine. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase – ‘I’m so offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what?”
    — Stephen Fry

    On your subject of being offensive: Ditto

  11. Chuck: I’ve never seen much difference between ‘causing (emotional) hurt’ or ‘causing offense’, and if I had to I’d argue that they can be used interchangeably. It sounds to me like the real distinction you’re trying to make is between ‘attacking people’ (what you call ‘hurting’) and ‘attacking ideas’ (what you call ‘offending’). Please correct me if I’ve missed the point.

    I think the term “politically correct” is a useful one that needs to be reclaimed from the fringes. Some elements of liberal thought have used it to silence opposition (or at least, they used to, before conservatives managed to turn “politically incorrect” into a badge of honor), and others have fallen into the trap of thinking that if we just clean up the language, the problem it’s symptomatic of will just disappear. For example, eliminating the term ‘kike’ from our vocabulary will magically solve anti-semitism.

    Meanwhile, the conservatives have effectively turned “PC” into a slur, a shorthand for ‘effeminate East Coast liberals trying to tell you what you can and cannot say. Next they’ll be taking your guns.’

    I try to be “politically correct,” and define the term to mean, “speaking and writing as though the people you’re discussing have actual feelings.” This rule of thumb covers both the people themselves and the ideas they care about. You can write a scathing critique of a religion without losing sight of the fact that the adherents of that religion are human beings. You can criticize welfare programs without dismissing the people who receive the checks as wastes of perfectly good sandwich meat. To the extent that I actually follow my own rules — I’ll admit I go ballistic from time to time — they serve me pretty well.

  12. Firstly, I don’t disagree with the main thrust of your post; the distinction between hurt and offense is an important one.

    Second, playing through Tomb Raider, I had a few moments of genuine irritation with the script (some first and second order idiot plots showing through), but by and large I thought Pratchett’s handling of the story, of the genesis of the character was decent and nuanced – she has probably done more for the franchise is that game than anyone else before her in terms of making Lara an interesting human.

    Third, the rape scene was not something I encountered for one reason or another. If I did I can’t remember it; which is either troubling for me or a reflection of what, by the end, the game felt all about (ie. not rape or gender cliches).

    Fourth, the press furore about the scene in question, in hindsight, was a reflection of the abilities and judgement of the people who spoke and made comments, as well as the marketing strategy used. If there is one thing we should be thankful about, it’s that it was a good opportunity to inject a dose of second thought on the issue into the current debate.

    • I actually thought TOMB RAIDER was great, honestly, and all the early worry about it was largely without concern. Either they had that scene in and took it out, or it was something overblown by letting the wrong people talk about the game. No matter how it shook out, I didn’t find it problematic. (I thought maybe the torture-porny aspect was a little over-grisly, and some of the “EVERYTHING IS COVERED IN AN ARCHITECTURE OF BONES AND VISCERA” aesthetic a little unbelievable, but all in all, loved the game, thought the writing was ace.)

      — c.

  13. […] Offense is easy. It’s shallow as a spit puddle, offense. Offense is cheap-as-free: you can be offended at how somebody’s dog is looking at you, you can take offense at somebody’s shitbutt sweater. I have been offended at the way a tree just sits there. Judging me. Stupid tree. With its stupid leaves and its condescending bark. PUTTING ON AIRS. I see you, tree. I am offended by you. […]

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: