Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Taking Offense

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Flickr Credit: Celestine Chua
There are a few best things that have ever happened to me, but one I will never forget happened last year in my English class. We were reading part of Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

And I’ll be honest—it was great writing, but I didn’t like some of the ideas. Like, they made me uncomfortable. No one else seemed to mind, and it wasn’t a raw-shocking-graphic-bundle-of-horribleness-meant-to-scar-me-for-life. I read it.

But it bothered me. That’s when my English teacher gave me the most important lesson he taught that year.

“It’s okay to be offended.”


What a concept.

And I pondered it. Like—it’s okay to be offended! It was liberating.

The paradigm shift exploded in my brain. And I thought about it. To some degree in the society I know and don’t always love, there’s this expectation that you will not get offended. In fact, it’s almost offensive to be offended.

Someone says I’m stupid—“Oh, don’t get upset. They’re just having a bad day.”

Someone commits a crime—“It’s really none of your business.”

Someone jabs at my religion—“Everyone can believe what they want; don’t hate on other people’s beliefs!”

It’s not that they don’t always have a point. Maybe that person is having a bad day, and I need to be extra forgiving towards them. It’s possible that the kid who committed a crime is having family issues, and it’s not my job to speculate. And my own response to the religion quip might have been made emotionally, rather than with kindness or reason.

But my problem is this: by making that excuse, that person is saying that it is wrong to have an emotional response to what I have just experienced.

How I present that emotional response is another matter entirely—I know.

Nonetheless, I think sometimes we forget that it’s okay to take offense. Attending a public high school, I’m familiar with many four-letter words, and it’s easy to become desensitized to their meaning. But maybe we shouldn’t. One of my favorite episodes from the TV show Arthur is called “The Bleep,” where D.W. learns a curse word. At first it’s a funny thing she’s learned and she shares it with her friends, but later, when she’s distracted and angry, she yells it at her mother—you can imagine she’s in trouble.

And I always liked the way Mrs. Read explained it to D.W. later. “It’s like saying ‘I want to hurt your feelings.’

There are a lot of things out there that are controversial, and sometimes people take offense at things that should be no matter at all, and sometimes people ignore things that, logically, should really hurt them.

As readers, we run into things that may offend us sometimes. More than once books have been banned because someone has been offended, perhaps over a small thing. People will defame an author for a discrepancy and shame readers for enjoying what they’ve read. It’s not cool.

But I also understand.

There should be a middle ground, in my opinion. Some things happen in books that we should not promote in real life, and there are books that are appropriate for some ages and not for others. Death is much more permissible in fiction. You’ll notice that 50 Shades of Gray doesn’t show up in many elementary school libraries. There’s a separation.

Therefore, I think we should learn to take offense gracefully.

I googled “How to be Offended” and aside from the first hit, everything else advises you how NOT to be offended.

This is the one link, and I think it’s worth the read, but I think I’ll add my own procedure for learning to be offended, especially because it is so easy to run into reading material that may bother us.

Now, there’s always the option of just closing the book or the window and saying, “I don’t want to read that,” which is fine. There are things not worth your time or your energies. But sometimes there is material we’re stuck with, in which case I find it better to use this method:

  1. read it twice—rereading something familiarizes you with the text, which is going to be important for the next steps
  2. pinpoint the offensive parts—in most circumstances, you can describe why something in particular is offensive
  3. reread the offensive parts specifically—there’s almost always a reason someone writes something; the unfortunate truth may be that it is intended to hurt your feelings, but it’s also possible that this person merely wants to be informative or is trying to make a point
  4. understand—figure out the exact meaning of what this person means, be sure to take into account irony or any other factors
  5. make a decision—did this change your mind? Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but I’ve always found it affirming to state my conclusion.
    1. “Even though I’ve read something that bothers me, it turns out that I still have the same opinion I did before.”
    2. “Wow, this really changed my mind about that issue.”
  6. reconcile—do you need to take action? (NOT: do you need to ban this book?) Do you need to discuss your value system with someone? Do you need to find a website or a person so you can ask more questions? Or is this a case where you should close the covers and say, “I’m glad I learned something about another perspective—but I think I’m done for now.”?

The exact timeline of this process can vary. It took me the duration of the assignment to figure out how to deal with being offended at Joan Didion’s piece. But I’m glad I read it, and that I did it, because I have a better way to handle emotional blows now.

So, go be offended, I guess. Enjoy it. And, when you’re ready, decide what you’re gonna do about it.

How do you handle a situation when something offends you?


  1. I remember that episode! It was a pretty nice one.
    I think it's okay to be offended too. Usually when I'm in such a situation, I let people know I'm offended by either shutting up or giving them the "I don't like this and I will probably do something stupid if you continue" stare which puts off the discussion for right then. I think about the issue in question later, when I'm a little more mentally relaxed (:

    1. I think that's actually a valid point—it's really hard to handle being offended when, at the same time, you're trying not to release all of your fury on your companions. Waiting for mental relaxation is definitely a way to go. :)