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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NEW COLUMN! Words I Hate: “Just”

Since I’m all about spicing up my writing routine, I’ve decided to institute a new column here on Queerly Different, entitled “words I hate,” in which I will argue that some words are consistently misused or are used in such a way that they obfuscate meaningful and critical dialogue and discussion.  As an initial caveat, I will just point out that I am not suggesting that people should start censoring themselves, only that we should be more deliberate and nuanced in the way that we think about the language with which we express ourselves.

Today’s word is “just.”  And I mean this not in the sense of something that is right or ethical, but instead the word that many use to dismiss something, e.g. “it’s just a TV show” or “it’s just a movie.”  As a scholar and critical consumer of media, and one who loves to talk about these things in meaningful ways, I sometimes (I won’t say often), find myself confronted by those who just want to sit back and be entertained, who safely ensconce themselves in the false idea that any text is “just” anything.

When someone says that what they are watching is “just a movie,” they typically follow it up with some variant of “don’t read too much into it,” or “you’re reading into the text.”  Beneath the surface of the word “just” lies a worldview that suggests that what is immediately perceptible is all there is, that there can be (and perhaps should be) no act of interpretation on the part of the observer.  Of course, in my view, such a perspective is demonstrably and logically false, as we are always interpreting the world in some way, even if we are doing so at the level of affect or our bodies.  There is no transparent set of meanings that we can somehow absorb through osmosis (despite what many literalists might like to suggest about such texts as, for example, the Bible).

The word “just” often emerges as a defense mechanism, a way of shutting down any sort of discussion that might be troubling or in some way uncomfortable.  And the trouble with the word “just” is that it is so seductively easy to evoke, and yet it is also tremendously effective at what it is intended to accomplish.  How do you respond to someone’s strident assertion that they “just want to read” or “just want to sit back and not think”?  Why do academics have to be such killjoys, anyway, bothering our pleasures with all of this talk of interpretation and ideology and whatnot?  Why can’t they just let us be who we are?

As with any word, I think we would have a richer, more nuanced and truly democratic society if we would think about ourselves more rhetorically and become more aware of how we engage with the world around us.  And you know what?  I know that’s not easy, and that frankly that scares a lot of people.  But do you want to know something else?  Sometimes it’s good to be scared.