The Case Against ‘Offensive’



In last Saturday’s piece on the bulldozing and paving over of language — specifically in response to Professors María R. Scharrón-del Río’s and Alan A. Aja’s “Case FOR ‘Latinx’” — somehow I failed to mention “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a recent article in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt which rightly draws a distinction between political correctness and the current softening of language:

The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

Lukianoff and Haidt chalk up today’s anti-intellectual phenomenon to the widespread encouragement (or lack of discouragement) of “emotional reasoning,” which replaces the traditional measure of right-wrong with unoffensive-offensive:

[David D.] Burns [in ‘Feeling Good’] defines emotional reasoning as assuming ‘that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’ ’ [Robert L.] Leahy, [Stephen J. F.] Holland, and [Lata K.] McGinn [in ‘Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders’] define it as letting ‘your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.’ But, of course, subjective feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at others who have done nothing wrong. Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important.

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.

There have always been some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. Yet throughout American history—from the Victorian era to the free-speech activism of the 1960s and ’70s—radicals have pushed boundaries and mocked prevailing sensibilities. Sometime in the 1980s, however, college campuses began to focus on preventing offensive speech, especially speech that might be hurtful to women or minority groups. The sentiment underpinning this goal was laudable, but it quickly produced some absurd results. …

Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on ‘blaming the victim,’ it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument ‘I’m offended’ becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the ‘offendedness sweepstakes,’ in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.

The piece includes a ton of instances in which emotional reasoning has led to ridiculous outcomes, such as when a white student was found guilty of racial harassment in 2008 because the anti-KKK book he was reading featured the image of a Klan rally on its cover. The University of Michigan’s campus newspaper fired a student after he wrote a satirical column on microaggressions, a “buzzword” (as Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea might say) whose “definition has expanded in recent years to include anything that can be perceived as discriminatory on virtually any basis,” according to Lukianoff and Haidt. Then there’s what happened last April at Brandeis University, where:

the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as ‘Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?’ and ‘I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.’ But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was ‘triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.’

You read that correctly: a project against microaggressions had to apologize for the microaggression it was perceived to have committed. It would seem this rabbit hole has no floor.

I highly recommend you read the entire article (if you haven’t already) and then ask yourself whether you would like to live in the kind of hypersensitive, intellectually sanitized society that emotional reasoning is leading us toward. And the prescribing of language is intellectually dulling, since any restrictions of speech involves restrictions on thought — an attempt to control words is an attempt to control ideas. Racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, ethnocentrism and other hateful beliefs are harmful to society, as they hinder harmony. But people still have a right to think hateful thoughts, or even express them publicly, and the right to think and say hateful things is ultimately good for society, since it fortifies good ideas and exposes bad ones.

On the issue of Latinx, a word whose only merit is that it’s supposed to make more people feel better, I’ll say it again: (insert trigger warning here) The offensiveness of words is mostly irrelevant, and usually reveals a mental and emotional vulnerability in those who find words offensive. A person actively creating a world free of hurt feelings is a person actively fleeing from human nature and reality. As ever, our species finds itself confronted with critical issues — matters of existence or extermination — which require challenging, often uncomfortable discussions using the only tool at our disposal: language.

I agree that part of the word Latino is intrinsically patriarchal, and that Latin@ imposes an unfair binary which says a person must either identify as male or female, but that isn’t the debate. The issue here, at least to me, is whether Latino is so hurtful that it should be replaced with a new word. I don’t think it is, and its hurtfulness seems beside the point. Plus, notwithstanding the patriarchy implied by the original definition, new definitions have been added which aren’t patriarchal or gender specific. So we shouldn’t throw out a word just because one of its definitions is offensive. If that were the case, countless other terms with multiple definitions — some benign, some not — would also be committed to the fire: fag, nigga, wife-beater, retard, illegal, cracker, savage, bitch, and so on. (For those readers offended by the mere listing of such words, I quote Tupac Shakur, who when chided for swearing in his 1992 address before the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Atlanta, said: “You can’t be no more offended by my cursing than what’s really going on.”)

The word offensive and its various forms are perhaps the most overused and overrated in today’s vernacular. They appear in our everyday arguments more than they should, as people have learned that offensiveness is the end-all and be-all. At present, to offend someone in a debate is to lose the debate — especially in the minds of liberals and religious people. Once an offense has been made (or has been perceived so), the pursuit of what’s right is abandoned so that the offender can be castigated and the offended can be consoled while he licks his wounds. In the end, when truth is subjective, to be offended amounts to being right.

If we must get rid of dangerous words, I suggest we start with offensive.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.