Monday, 9 April 2018

But are we actually offended?

During my trip to Northampton earlier this week, I had a very interesting chat with Sam about the state of the world. Sam is one of the most learned people I know, so it’s always good to hear his views on issues which are burrowing themselves under my skin.

We were discussing the recent shift in society towards a dystopia where everyone seems intent on taking offence about, well, almost everything. It’s as though we’re in a strange competition with each other about who feels the most oppressed, or have become hyper-sensitive about the people around us who we’ve decided ARE oppressed. It’s a seismic shift, and the recent Labour Party anti-semitism row, where the perceived defence of one minority has led to people attacking another, demonstrates that there are wheels within wheels within the phenomenon.

It seems we’re now trying to work out a pecking order of oppression. Are Muslims at the top, or trans people? Who comes next? Women kind? Black people? I am all too aware of the fact that gay men have slid right down this particular list. The word “thriving” is all-too-often used to describe my community these days. I once read a Facebook post which attempted to argue that bisexual people are an oppressed minority and therefore deserve more funding than gay men who, in the arts, are doing, apparently, just fine. I personally have a rather conflicted and controversial view of bisexuality. I don’t actually recognise it as a minority group. When a bisexual person is living life as gay or lesbian, I am more than happy to view them as part of the rainbow umbrella. When they’re married with kids, however, and living and loving someone of the opposite sex, they are, in my view, no longer gay and certainly no longer a minority in this regard. Unless, of course, they enter into poly-amorous relationships. But that’s another story. 

...Cue massive gulps of air from people desperate to take offence...

It is this Brave New World of ultra-sensitivity which saw me being accused of homophobia by a straight woman after I’d called Eurovision “the gay men’s World Cup.” It also led to Nathan recently being accused of transphobia for wearing a T-shirt which encouraged men to get involved in knitting with the tongue-in-cheek pun, “real men have balls.” Another friend of mine was accused of anti Semitism by non-Jewish academics for reasons I genuinely couldn’t even fathom. These accusations are firsts for us all. No one has ever accused me of homophobia before. It was a terribly hurtful accusation. But this new-found prohibition of language has made people feel that they can cooly bandy words like “prejudice” around in some sort of misguided display of solidarity.

We have even designed new, ghastly words to describe the things which have been deemed inexcusable. Female readers of this blog take note: accuse me of “mansplaining” and prepare yourself to be told you’re hysterical. The two words, in my view, are equally incendiary and conceptually tragic.

But in all of this, it’s the word “offended” which feels the most glib and over-used. It’s used so often these days that it’s beginning to lose all meaning to the extent that people have started dressing it up with adjectives like “mortally” just to give it some extra oomph.

Sam’s argument is that, before blithely using the word, we need to think very hard about what we actually mean by it. Are we frightened? Disgusted? Angry? Upset? Wounded? Or are we just throwing the word out into the universe to show that we’re a more educated, more sensitive higher being, who genuinely understands how it feels to be an oppressed minority? Or are we spending too much of our time looking for things to jump on accusingly? At the end of the day, everything but the most boring language can be twisted and spat back as a weapon. Is it even possible for a straight woman to know what homophobia feels like? It’s certainly bordering on rich to describe a gay man as a homophobe. And if a trans-man is so terribly upset by a gay man’s comedy T-shirt, I would argue that he’s probably had quite an easy life!

Look, I think there are ways of pointing things out. My friend Carol has been brilliant throughout my life at nudging me with great politeness, clarity and erudition when I write a blog post which sails close to the wind in terms of remarks which might hurt or anger racial minorities. She never feels the need to scream “I’m offended” and leave it there.

Similarly, I try to keep my own claims of homophobia down to an absolute minimum. I could dedicate my life to eking it out of people, or leaping when someone says something which, to some, might be interpreted homophobia, but I think back to my experiences in the 1980s and realise that there are far fewer occasions these days when the fight needs to be taken up. Context is, in my view, everything. If offence isn’t meant to be caused, I’m usually happy to let it slide. Occasionally a comedian will crack a gay joke which I feel hasn’t quite landed, but, in comedy, I genuinely feel that everyone and everything has to be fair game. And in life, I don’t want people to feel they have to tread on the little circle of egg shells I have placed around me. As a man who constantly and inadvertently puts my foot in it with people, this would reek of terrible double standards!

I guess at the end of the day I just wonder whether some of those who claim to be offended are actually not just mock offended. Offended because they feel they ought to be offended without actually feeling a strong emotion.

I have been spat at in the street for being gay. I didn’t feel offended. I felt terrified and I felt ashamed and I couldn’t tell anyone because I was too scared that people would think it was my fault. When I unstitch what the word offended actually means, it begins to pale into insignificance.

I urge us all to think about perspective.


  1. Trying to police how other people feel is unfair and pointless. Just because you don't understand someone's anger doesn't mean it isn't valid. You wouldn't appreciate someone dismissing something that you felt strongly about or that hurt you.

    The "people get offended these days" argument holds no water because by what objective measure exists that decides what people can and cannot be offended by? There isn't one. I could easily say that people in my parents generation were far more easily offended because I don't relate to their values or sensibilities.

    Not to mention being offended by other people being offended is still being offended so your really not any better than the people your criticizing.

    We can argue all day over who has the right to be offended over what or we can show empathy towards each other.

  2. We could, of course, argue all day about this. But you have posted anonymously