Is it ever appropriate to be ‘offended’ on behalf of someone else who isn’t?
Offence is the most bandied about word in the modern political debate. It can bring down promising careers in public service, it can tarnish mass social movements. It is as destructive as it is powerful in our modern lexicon. So my question is a simple one, is it ever permissible to be offended on behalf of someone else who isn’t?
The context to this question comes from Devon, where a farmer said something he definitely should not have.
Devon farmer Richard Haddock presumably does not think before he speaks. Otherwise he would not have used the word ‘lynched’ in relation to the chief of Ofcom if she ever visited the area he lived; due to poor broadband speeds.
The problem with using the word lynched? Well the chief of Ofcom is born of Jamaican parents. Ms Sharon White is black.
Obviously Mr Haddock lacks either decorum or commonsense, the historical connotations where ‘lynching’ has been used in relation to black people is not pretty. And normally I would be supporting the actions of Federation of Small Businesses with their suspension of Mr Haddocks membership. But things are much more complicated when Ms White explains she is not offended. Not in the least. She understands it was more faux pas than racism and she has a thick skin for insults anyway.
If she is not offended, and the offender was motivated by ignorance rather than intentional racism is it appropriate for the FSB to be offended on Ms White’s behalf? This is the nub of the problem in modern society visa-a-vis the politics of political correctness and ‘offence’.
Taking a dictionary standpoint it’s manifestly obvious from the stories of all involved in the incident that no crime was involved. Mr Haddock did not cause that kind of offence. But it is not entirely clear if he was guilty of the former definition of offence either. Ms White was not upset, she accepted his later apology for using the wrong word in the wrong setting. If Ms White is not ‘hurt’, ‘upset’ and does not feel Haddock was trying to be deliberately rude – then why are other people getting offended?
This for me is the nub of the issue of the politics around offence. All too many times people are either intellectually lazy, and resort to being ‘offended’ to avoid political discourse. Or, well meaning crusaders get professionally ‘offended’ on the behalves of minorities who – occasionally – would rather they just did not.
As a young gay man this whole discussion is very real to me. The politics of ‘offence’, political correctness, and social solidarity is a very real issue for me. And I love and appreciate it when a majority stands up for a minority. When heterosexual people make a stand against the religious homophobe who’d seek to deny me access, due to my sexuality, I love the social solidarity to opposing him. But I do not appreciate it when that heterosexual majority gets offended on my behalf; indicating that I am too weak or stupid to realize I ought to be offended myself. I am gay, I know when someone is being deliberately homophobic, bigoted or when they are just naive and slightly uneducated about modern sexuality. There is always a difference between a faux pas and intentional prejudice. We need to be smart enough to realise this.
Likewise with racism. If Ms White is telling the FSB that she is not offended, that Haddock was not being racist, but just an ass needing to think before engaging mouth, then others should take her at her word. Believe me, Ms White knows real, deliberate, injustice-filling racism when she comes across it. For me, I’ll get ‘offended’ when there is a reason to be. But at all times, I’m aware that crying ‘offence’ is neither an argument nor an effective discourse to rebut discriminatory attitudes or actions.