Words I Hate: “Offense”

In this installment of “Words I Hate,” I want to talk about the word “offense.”  It seems like a particularly timely moment to talk about this word, given the ways in which politicians on the right have consistently attempted to reframe systemic issues (racism, for example) as just another example of people getting too easily offended for their own good.  Claiming that students on college campuses get offended by name-calling or other acts of violence (either verbal or physical) allows us to dismiss their concerns as largely trivial.

As with “just,” “offense” (and its cousin, “offended”), allows us to assume that complex institutions and issues can be boiled down to the action of an individual and, perhaps more importantly, that it is actually the victim’s fault for being so touchy.  “Offense” allows us collectively to believe that there aren’t really any problems that can’t be solved if people just toughen up and learn to fight for themselves rather than relying on some other force (the government, university administration, etc.) to solve their problems for them.  If only people would learn to be a little tougher, to grow a thicker skin, then they would more able be able to deal with the problems they face (one say this line of argument trumpeted in recent issues of The Atlantic).

“Offense” is clearly one of the core concepts behind (entirely misnamed) “political correctness.”  It has become an insidious defense mechanism on the part of those who already occupy positions of power, and it has proven to be insidiously effective.  No longer are questions of inequality along lines of race, gender, class, or sexuality about deeply entrenched lines of power, agency, and economic and social benefit.  Instead, the reason those who occupy positions of privilege can’t do and say what they want with impunity is due to the ever-present threat of offending someone and setting off a protest that they will then have to deal with.

I would also like to point out that the use of the word “offense” is not limited to those who occupy positions of power.  It is sometimes used in some social justice circles and, while this is understandable, it also runs the risk of buying into the same sinister logic that those on the right consistently use to delegitmize social struggles of all kinds.  It behooves us as social and political activists to be as conscious our language as those we oppose.

Again, I’m not suggesting that we should constantly have to monitor or censor ourselves.  However, part of being a thoughtful, engaged citizen is being able to choose which words actually convey the meaning that we wish to express.  As the late theorist Roland Barthes reminded us, all words contain within them connotations that shade and influence not only how we choose which words we use, but also how those words are understood by others.  If we truly want to make it a better and more just world for everyone, we should think more carefully and critically about how we express ourselves in the public (and, hopefully, the private) sphere.

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