The latest in a category I’m calling: “something on the internet is WRONG!”
(I self consciously suppressed writing about these kinds things for a while because I thought, and still sometimes think, that they may be relatively unimportant. (Relative to working, sleeping, saving lives, making money . . . ) Also, when I first heard the description “angry behind a keyboard,” it was used as a pejorative and it did bring up the image of a ridiculous looking person. But, like my close and patient friends already know, these are things that I will really dwell on. I’m also increasingly considering content created for the internet to be as fully worth critiquing or commenting on as non-online content. Finally, I like talking and I’m compelled to share things that I stress out about and when I’ve depleted the receptive ears around me, I start shouting into the internet.)
SMBC comics just about always strike me as witty, insightful, informative, and funny. This one, however, me unsettled. After closing my laptop lid and tossing around in bed for a while, I’m back up to write why I thought it was off mark.
One of the points is that “offensive” is meaningless; it’s an entirely subjective judgment; there is no way to verify whether something is objectively offensive or not; nothing is demonstrably offensive. We should say that we are offended, not that something is offensive.
However, something can offend because it is racist or sexist or cruel. Words like these are meaningful and verifiable. We can define racism–a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race (Merriam-Webster)–and then confirm or deny that a statement like “Black people are mentally slower than white people” demonstrates racism. (A more fruitful distinction to remember in conversation, I think, is between “that’s racist’ and “you’re a racist.” Jay Smooth has a great videoblog about this.)
Also, I think you can think of offensiveness is a cultural construct informed by what offends many individual people in a society. Offensive can describe when something violates a social norm within a culture enough so that people of that culture are offended by it. We can say: in Japanese culture, it is offensive for a subordinate to maintain eye contact with a superior at work and have it hold as a general truth without it needing to be true in the opinions of all Japanese people.
I get that it’s sometimes not productive to take something that offends you and say that it offends everyone ever. But, if you say “that’s offensive because it’s racist,” even a listener who is a racist and disagrees with the idea that racist speech or actions is wrong understands that you have expressed a general truth about a social norm.