If you’ve ever called someone out for being racist, sexist, transphobic, etc., you’ve probably received a response indicating you’re too easily offended, especially on social media.
I spent one week without verbalizing that I was offended by something.
Here’s what inspired this experiment followed by the results of what happened.
Content warning: self-harm, sexism
For one week, I decided to stop verbalizing ‘I’m offended’ in any form or fashion.
Because I do usually speak up when something is offensive, I’m aware of how it affects my relationships. In fact,the inspiration for this self-assignment/self-assessment resulted from a Facebook conversation between my husband and me.
He posted a meme that I declared sexist, though I was more offended that he’d repost something without checking out the source (Dr. Laura’s Facebook page –ew). Even my mother came to his defense, asserting that I’m too easily offended by things.
His following post was another meme, this time all about being offended.
For many years, I didn’t speak up when I was not comfortable with racist jokes. After ‘not fitting in’ for so long (because being geek wasn’t always chic), it felt good to be included, but doing so at the expense of others (and in some cases myself) was not something that made me feel so great.
So I run this website now about women in geek culture and it’s still hard for me to say “I’m a feminist” without stuttering.
Everyone assigns their own meaning to the word. Depending on the circle, the assumption could be that I am a ‘feminazi’ or a ‘white feminist,’ so I choose my assertions very carefully, especially offline.
And let’s face it: many men probably feel bad for my husband because of my beliefs. It puts me in a tough position: I can be who I am and like myself, or I can hide that and hate myself, and neither of those things feels like a healthy choice.
Do you see that? Liking myself feels unhealthy because it’s going to offend people. That’s not irony, it’s just f**ked up.
It took a great deal of self-discovery to be able to verbalize how I feel in situations. It took getting through and past a relationship in which some opinions would evoke threats of physical violence.
When my husband implies that I’m not capable of controlling my own emotions, I’m stuck. All that work I did to be able to stand up for myself – to stand on my own so that I am a better individual and a better partner – that’s something that he can diminish and classify as being emotionally uncontrolled.
Is he gaslighting me? If so, does he know he’s doing it?
Has my compassion led to crazy? Is being an ally of marginalized people simply too inconvenient for my white household and its own struggles? Maybe.
And worse, situations like these detract from the times we spend supporting each other; the way he supports my relentless pursuit of career goals (which is a huge part of my happiness factor), how I supported him financially when he was unemployed, or how he comforted me when I cried when my grandfather passed away. And let’s be real: I reworked his resume like a boss, but he’s the one who cooks and lifts heavy stuff. We do not exactly conform to or oppose gender roles; we just have these complementary skill sets.
Do people see that on social media? No. They probably think we’re total assholes to each other 90% of the time. It probably embarrasses him that I speak up on certain issues online, and I facepalm every time I see him negate #BlackLivesMatter with ‘all lives matter.’
But since so many people seem to have such an issue with the ‘being offended thing,’ I decided to see it from their side. Maybe it will help me better understand others, including my own husband and myself.
So now I’m giving up verbalizing ‘I’m offended’ to see how it could help or harm myself and others.
Recognizing My Own Privilege
I realize that I was able to do this because of my own privileges. The idea wasn’t to refrain from being offended, but to refrain from verbalizing my reaction. And let’s be real: it’s easier for me to pretend to be okay with a racist joke because I am white, even though racist jokes offend me. As a woman it’s also culturally acceptable to just go along with what a man says, too.
Defining the Parameters
My friend Wendy suggested establishing a difference between ‘hurtful’ and ‘offensive,’ and already I see how this experiment is going to help me. I realize that sometimes when I am expressing hurt, the other party responds with something like, “you’re too easily offended.” What’s interesting about it is that it’s situational. While my husband and I clash over things that could be ‘offensive,’ we have serious and healthy conversations around hurt feelings.
But often, things are both offensive and hurtful, and that’s where issues get mired, especially on social media.
For the purpose of this project, I’m going to include any necessary exposition if I need to sort out whether something is hurtful, offensive, or both. Offensive items will have to fall in an ‘ist’ or ‘ic’ category – homophobic, ageist, etc.
At work, I edit a submission in which someone refers to a C-suite female marketing executive as a ‘PR girl.’ I message my coworker and ask her what she thinks. Should I change it? Am I being too sensitive? I’m not off the mark in thinking that this type of terminology hurts people like her and me, right?
During the conversation, I did some research and found that ‘PR Girl’ was a self-assigned moniker. Therefore, the author wasn’t being sexist, he was just referring to her as she preferred. I felt that the title was problematic, but recognizing that it was self-assigned and a personal brand (selected by the choice of the woman bearing the title), I put her title in quotes and changed nothing else in the piece. This indicates that it’s a title, not a male author being sexist. I felt the urge to rant extensively to my coworker, but got on with my day instead.
Result: I fact-checked and got a second opinion. A+editing! I spent an appropriate amount of time on the issue, but didn’t dwell on it or fully unpack the issue as I could have. This increased productivity.
“The Red Bulletin” is Red Bull’s full-color print publication. As a published product, it’s high-quality with great production value. I receive the publication as Klout perk (maybe because my husband fits into their demographic).
“TBR” is geared towards young, professional men (i.e. people who drink Red Bull the most). Occasionally, I’m deeply interested in the articles, like an in-depth look at Ronda Rousey (a public figure who said people should be paid according to their value in the workforce, even though it was reported as ‘shutting down a feminist reporter‘).
The most recent issue of “TBR” shows men how to act like James Bond. After mostly enjoying “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” I give the article a read. Most of the tips posted indicate that sleeping with a woman is the gentleman’s end goal. I’m offended not only because this frames women as prizes/objects but also because the article conditions young men to act accordingly (after all, it is a guide), I was all set to pen a response post, maybe a more modern guide.
Result: I did not verbalize ‘being offended.’ Instead, I thought about more subtle changes I could make, especially ones that would appeal to the many male feminists/blog readers I know. Instead of writing about “The Red Bulletin,” I spent my time reviewing a comic book featuring a female anti-hero.
I post a friends-only Facebook update about an ongoing situation (since this is public, I have to leave it at that, but it is a serious matter involving threats of assault). A wild mansplanation suddenly appears: “Tara is exaggerating.”
I want to reply with a rant.
I want to stand up for myself, but I don’t, because of this project.
An hour later, the male friend sends me a private message, grievously apologetic.
“I meant to type ‘Tara is NOT exaggerating,'” he said. I re-read the comments in that context and realized that the apology was sincere. Furthermore, even though he didn’t say so, I knew that this ally was preemptively coming to my defense because he realized that others might minimize my concern about a sensitive situation.
Result: I realized that I should have reached out to him privately anyway. It’s not like him to make that kind of comment, especially on a semi-public forum. This helped me evaluate why I say what I do and where I say it.
In a professional situation, a woman makes remarks indicating that I should conform to certain gender roles. I’m offended. I do not comply to these gender roles and remain non-compliant. No further action ensues.
Result: All that anxiety for nothing. Her opinion? Ground!
Completely unrelated to feminist issues, I’ve just had a randomly rough work week. It sucks. I mention this because the unrelated stress compounds future actions on day 5.
I log onto Facebook to see that one of my favorite groups is having a week in which only women of color speak. This is an intersectional attempt to give women of color voices where they are sometimes silenced by white women and male allies.
It’s an awesome idea and I support it.
I’m white, which means I am a spectator. I start reading stuff the women of color post. It’s real and I want my feminism to be intersectional so I read it.
I (mildly) self-harm and resolve to do better tomorrow on all fronts.
Result: I went through the day without being offended. I was just stressed and angry. I’m glad I had the sense to realize that instead of thinking I was ‘offended’ or even made uncomfortable by anything that I read or heard that day.
As an editor, I have the luxury of working alone much of the time. I take advantage of this opportunity. At night, I go to theater rehearsal and work on similar projects alone. I then do some writing and spend some time watching Netflix, showering, and cleaning.
Husband and dog respected that I wanted some me time.
All of this stuff makes me feel better about myself. I avoided human interaction and selected the media I watched with great care (and privilege). It was a good self-care day.
Result: Avoided social media and human interaction. Had me-time guilt-free. Sometimes the best thing I can do for myself is to become a better person. That doesn’t necessarily happen in conjunction with other people, and it happens for me, not them.
Nerds debate about movies. I get into a debate with a male acquaintance about one such movie, and my opinion is that the movie is generally okay but they could have done better with female representation.
I’m not necessarily offended by the movie; I just think it could have done better. I offer examples of other movies that do a better job in hopes of spinning the conversation in a positive direction.
He accuses me of shouting and being offended. I ask him to please consider it from a broader perspective or at least respect my opinion and he says I am not respecting his opinion. We switch to a more agreeable topic.
Result: I’m not offended, but the perception is that I am offended whenever I critique media because I am a feminist and it is assumed by some that I am ‘looking to be offended.’
Nope. Sometimes I just like to watch movies and talk about them, actually.
What I Learned
Most people don’t care about the source of content as long as it’s funny.
I see the inherent danger in that, especially on social media, but I also see the value in accepting all people as multi-faceted. Does it really help or harm history if we neglect recorded footage of Hitler having fun with his family and friends? I’m not really sure, but it makes me uncomfortable and it makes me think.
Not offended? Congrats, you’ve got privilege.
As I’ve recognized several times, I have privileges that allow me to ‘opt out’ of being easily offended. At the end of the day, some guys are gonna be creepers on trains because I’m a woman and some people I barely know are going to pat me on the head like a dog because I’m short. And it sucks.
But hey, if I’m walking down the street at night and a cop pulls over to talk to me, I’m assuming the cop is there to help, not shoot me. That means I have the ability to choose not to be offended by some things, while others will inevitably bother me on a personal level.
If you’re rarely offended, congratulations! You’ve got privilege. Please don’t use it to make other people feel bad for being offended by things they cannot ignore, even if they want to.
I can apply the 80/20 rule to my life.
Here on The Geek Initiative, we have an 80/20 rule. That’s the balance we strive for: 80% uplifting content about female comic book creators, main characters, and the experiences of women in geek culture and 20% criticism (usually of media). We try to say ‘woah, there are so many awesome things happening out there…and we can do even better.’
This experience has taught me that it’s possible to apply the 80/20 rule to my life, and I suspect people will take me more seriously when I do speak up. This is also a great answer to a conflict I face: some people of color ask me to be actively involved in calling out racism while others have told me it isn’t my place. So what’s an ally in my position to do after apologizing? Promote more content and crafts created by people of color and demonstrate on social media (and by generally promoting stuff I love) that beauty and other awesomeness comes in many sizes, shapes, and colors.
People assign emotions to me.
As I mentioned earlier, I evaluated whether I felt ‘hurt’ vs. ‘offended’ as part of this project.
A lot of times I found that I was personally hurt by something. In once instance, a man talked over me in a conversation. Maybe he knew it, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he did it because I’m a woman; maybe not. But rather than being offended by it, I was hurt that my friend didn’t respect me.
If I had spoken up, what would he have said? If I’d analyzed it, what would have happened? We might have said I was offended because the behavior was sexist. Sexist or not, it doesn’t really matter. The situation hurt, and that’s the sting I carry with me after the conversation ends.
Half the problem with people ‘being offended’ isn’t that they’re offended: it’s that other people are assigning this reaction to them whenever they criticize something! I can say a piece of media could have done a better job representing women without disliking the movie or being offended by it, but half the reason people accuse me of ‘being offended’ too often is because they assume that I am offended every time I critique something. This project really allowed me to observe that in action in multiple instances.
Addressing issues privately is (sometimes) important.
On day 3, I realized the importance of speaking with people privately. It made me evaluate online criticism: am I doing this to showboat and get a pat on the back, to genuinely come to others’ aid, or to help the person I’m criticizing understand others? When I think about my online comment responses, it’s a mixture of the three. In that instance, I began to have a meaningful dialog.
Social media never shows the whole story.
Additionally, I’ve thought about how social media compounds these issues, and how anyone’s Facebook page really doesn’t give you the full view of who they really are. My husband’s page, for example, makes him look like a jerk on some days. Mine is carefully curated, so you’re seeing the me I want you to see.
Neither are accurate.
Since doing this experiment, I’ve had many more private and offline conversations about controversial issues than I have had online. And while less people have ‘seen’ these conversations, the conversations have been more meaningful, thus possibly resulting in positive changes.
How I’ve Changed
I have definitely changed the way I use social media. It can be a tool for social change, but it doesn’t have to be all the time. And having enough privilege to tune out some issues most of the time can be a positive thing when it comes to my own mental health. However, the Facebook algorithm is real: due to this privilege and associated inclinations, sometimes I need to take an extra step in seeking out meaningful news from marginalized voices. And I do.
Being offended without taking action does nothing to make the world a better place. It only raises our blood pressure and makes us agitated.
And that’s a decent rule to live by. Now I try to ask myself:
- Can vocalizing my offended feelings result in a meaningful conversation?
- Could I do more good by creating or promoting positive content that reflects the type of media I want to see?
- Is this interaction in the best interest of my own wellbeing?
- Am I continuously offended (or often critical of others expressing that they are offended)? It’s time for a reality check about real emotions and world issues.
This has helped me spend my time online (and offline) more effectively.
Are you up for this kind of challenge? Let me know what you think about my observations and experiences in the comments.