January 16, 2013

On the Conflation of Offence

 I'm sure I must have spoken about this before, but here I am, noting it down for official record (when I die, I’m going to insist they read the entirety of this blog aloud at my funeral service).
Recent events regarding transphobic comments, and the defence thereof (the details of which I won't cover as they have been detailed and analysed far more proficiently than I could have*) have resulted in the increasingly common arguments about 'offence'. Typically some factions, the Mail Online included, will tumble between either claiming gross offence themselves or whining about precious little flowers that cry offence at anything, entirely depending on their predefined axioms. This speaks to the heart of the problems with offence in and of itself.
To me, the word 'offence' has lost all useable meaning in this context. It has expanded to encompass everything from the fan-waving delicacy of a 19th century duchess to the furious outrage of a mob bearing fire and pitchforks. Whenever anyone reacts badly to any publication, they are reported as being 'offended', which means..., what exactly? That they didn't like the article? That they disagree with it? That they consider it to be fundamentally wrong to an absolute measure?
I have said fairly often that I don't think anyone has the right not to be offended, and I stick by that. This is part of the essence of free speech and the spirit of public debate, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the people causing offence aren’t being dicks. Some people are offended by the defence of gay marriage and, well, that's tough. Other people are offended by the casual use of the word 'tranny' but, again, it's not the offence that's important.
What we need to understand is the harm and consequence of the countered article. When Julie Burchill, through the Observer, chose to write a ridiculous article riddled with ignorant slurs against the trans community, it wasn't the offence that was important. Granted, upsetting people isn't a nice thing to do, but that's a consequence of speaking openly in a world where people don't agree. What was important about Burchill's article was that it reinforced the consistent dehumanisation of trans people, reducing them to their sexual organs and dismissing their identities and ability to be strong social activists. This societal view of the trans community results in actual harm to the people within it. When real, living people are viewed as either sub-human or less worthy than those crowding around the middle of the bell curve; they are far more prone to open mockery, humiliation and violence.
But  we're not just talking about trans issues, here. Anytime someone writes an inflammatory article or makes a ridiculous public statement that results in people becoming 'up in arms' in response, it is important to ask why. Offence isn't a reason, it's an emotional response. If you call me evil, I'll be offended by that. If you publically call homosexual people evil then they too will be offended, but you may also be damaging the entire homosexual community in measurable ways, be it in the manifestation of bullying, prejudice or delaying equality of marriage.
On the other hand, if a bishop (or whoever) said he found equal marriage offensive to his religion, you could say, 'OK, you are offended, but will allowing homosexual folk to marry bring about genuine harm to Christians/heterosexuals/marriage/society?' As far as my understanding goes, the answer to this is no.

So structuring these arguments around offence is pointless and really only serves to present these conflicts as nothing more than a soap opera. Show me the tangible measurable effects and why they are important.