Don’t mistake expressing contempt for taking offense

Dear people out there in the world,

If you and I are discussing something, and you say something that sounds racist/sexist/homophobic/classist/ableist (or otherwise marginalising towards certain groups of people), and I say to you “Wow, that’s a pretty bigoted word” please don’t think that you have offended me and that I just need to grow a thicker skin and not get offended so easily, and why do people look for stuff to go around getting offended about etc etc. (Oh no, the PC brigade is running wild!)

I’m not offended by those words. I’m contemptuous of those words, and I’m letting you know that using them just made me think less of you – less admiration, less trust, less enjoyment in your company. I don’t hold you personally in the same contempt as I do the words that you just used, at least not yet. Whether I end up doing that depends on how you react to having your word choices challenged.

How to restore my former opinion of you? Acknowledge that the words you used have their origin as tools of social exclusion, the disdain and scorn of those who appear “different” – even if you didn’t mean them to be at the time, even if they’re just words that everybody in your family uses and you never thought about those words that wayand that now that your attention has been drawn to this, you don’t want to use them that way again.

You don’t need to explain that you weren’t thinking about those aspects of the words when you said them – I’ve already assumed that by bothering to challenge you on them in the first place. If I thought you were being maliciously abusive, I would have simply reacted in kind.

I know that all of us use words unthinkingly at times because they’re part of the zeitgeist around us – what my challenge asks of you is to think more about the language we habitually use to express ourselves, particularly when we express disapproval. All of us have absorbed assumptions/attitudes about other people from those who raised us and our various peer groups. Many of these assumptions/attitudes are only ever passed on obliquely, via subtle disapproval when one doesn’t conform to the expected assumption/attitude, or a gentle but firm steering away from group interests that “just aren’t our sort of thing”.

Some of these cultural assumptions/attitudes are uplifting expressions of pride in a treasured heritage or shared talent/skill. Some of these cultural assumptions/attitudes are, quite frankly, a toxic blight on human dignity. If one wishes to be an ethical human being, then it’s important to hold one’s accumulated assumptions/attitudes up to a harsh bright light and decide which of them stand up to ethical scrutiny. Welcome to the process of self-examination – the critical analysis of internalised assumptions and attitudes.

It doesn’t make you (or anybody else) a malicious person simply because you unthinkingly use expressions that you learnt as part of a culture that is toxic in parts. Every culture is toxic in parts, because the one thing that all cultures have in common is that they are an outgrowth of systems of social control that reinforce status hierarchies, and status hierarchies require that some people are valued above other people based on assumptions about perceived attributes.

But one doesn’t have to be malicious to be cause harm by being insensitive. Exclusionary language is not neutral – by reinforcing negative social stereotypes it leads to discrimination, aggression and other oppressions against the marginalised.

Reflect on how those words are meant to be a warning to and a shaming of those who are different from the approved norm, and imagine how unwelcoming they are to anybody who identifies with the stigmatised group (which may not be immediately obvious to you as you are saying such things). Is having your words mark you as the swaggering reinforcer of rigid social norms really the impression you want to give to others? (and if you think “edgy”, “politically incorrect”, “taboo” language subverts rather than reinforces rigid social norms, there’s a lovely bridge just a short walk away that I’m sure would look lovely at the bottom of your garden (where all those fairies live) – special bargain price just for today!).

Since I started reading social justice blogs, and writing about social justice myself, there are probably around 100 words that used to be part of my lexicon that I now no longer use. At least a dozen of those were words I used quite frequently to express disapproval/disdain, without thinking about their origin as exclusionary. Yet I thought of myself as a fairly self-aware and kind-spirited person – and I mostly was! – but now I’m more consciously anti-oppressive in my language choices, which is better than just blunderingly trying to do the right thing.

Note that I don’t think I’ve rooted out all my toxic baggage, nor that anybody can entirely. We are all works in progress.

I know that sometimes, despite my best intentions, a bit of that baggage which I hadn’t realised was hiding away in one particular corner will peep out, and I’ll unthinkingly express something exclusionary/dehumanising that on reflection shames me, and requires me to publicly acknowledge the thoughtless insensitivity and the harm done thereby. More times than I’m comfortable with admitting, a bit of that toxic baggage will pop up and a marginalising expression will come to the forefront of my mind, and I will be ashamed for thinking it even though I would never, ever say it. But the more I work on examining my own heritage of toxic exclusionary tropes, the less this happens, because deconstructing my original acquisition of that vocabulary breaks the old thought routines.

My reward? Being more open to broader opportunities for welcoming other people into my social circle; knowing that by being an overt anti-oppression ally I lower the interaction anxiety for people whose lived experiences are vastly different from mine, which makes our interactions more enjoyable for all, and experiencing/reciprocating more kindness and warmth in my life as a result.

So, when I object to the marginalising words you just used, I’m not a wounded little petal petulantly nagging you about how-dare-you-offend-me. I’m showing contempt for the words you chose because of the attitudes from which they arose. You can take an opportunity to shed a weight you didn’t even realise you were carrying if you listen to the challenge, examine the source of that vocabulary and choose to jettison that toxic load.

Or you can refuse to acknowledge that choosing to use words that arise from bigotry only perpetuates that bigotry, and vigorously defend your right to express your opinions while using such words, thus demonstrating that you appear to be wearing your arse as a hat right now, and I will then loudly proclaim that those who find arsehats vile and repellent would do well to avoid you.

Never fear: most of the socially privileged secretly admire bigoted arsehats so long as they can credibly deny their bigotry, so probably “nobody who matters” will take me seriously anyway. But for those who do take these things seriously, I will keep on objecting and challenging and naming and shaming assorted arsehats. And I won’t be the only one.

Yours in ongoing self-examination,

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, language, social justice

Tags: , , , ,

49 replies

  1. What a brilliant post. I need to find a way to append this to every conversation I have that includes bigoted language use.

  2. Thanks, Emily! I’ve been challenged on redacting various marginalising slurs when moderating comments elsewhere, and I thought putting all my thoughts on the importance of challenging oppressive language usage together in one post that I can link to instead of restating the argument over and over again would be useful.
    I also thought that an irregular ‘secular sermon’ feature once in a while would be a good thing. So this is the first one (although maybe I’ll go back and tag some of the older posts with this label as well).

  3. Thank you for this, tigtog. To me, making ignorant statements of the “-ist” variety is the same sort of ‘warning label’ that a person who punctuates every sentence with various version of “fuck” wears. Ursula LeGuin recently had something to say about that version at her site.
    I’m not offended. In fact, I really am kind of grateful that some people wear their prejudices on their sleeves where I don’t accidentally invest a lot of energy getting close to them before being blindsided.
    And yes, on the never getting completely rid of the baggage. I’ll just go ahead and AOL that (when was the last time you heard *that* term). Thanks again.

  4. I really liked that Ursula K. LeGuin post (I linked to it last week in one of the linkfests).
    I should have added something like your “I don’t accidentally invest a lot of energy getting close to them before being blindsided” point to my paragraph about the rewards. It certainly cuts down on the amount of time one spends grinding one’s teeth in the vicinity of arsehats.

  5. Yeah, great post tigtog. An important distinction to make. And I agree with the LeGuin post too. Thanks for linking that.
    I like where you go on to say that we are works in progress. I ‘ve only just started posting to a few feminist blogs after reading and learning here, at Shakes, Echidne and IBTP for the past 3 years or so. I worry about getting my language right and inadvertently marginalizing people, especially because I’m not naturally a writer and haven’t had much formal education, but I hope that I can only learn and improve by accepting criticism when I fail.
    🙂 Amelia

  6. I don’t really buy the Le Guin post. Yes, the good old days, when your brothers could come home from the war and not say f**k once… but it was perfectly OK to say N***r, c**n, and there were equally offensive words for gay people, but they didn’t exist, did they!

    • @Helen, I guess because of just about everything else Le Guin has ever written, I didn’t get that vibe and still can only just by the tiniest whisker hypothetically see how it might appear that way.

  7. Yes. An excellent secular sermon, and rightly appearing on a Sunday. I like thinking of myself as a work-in-progress.

  8. *quietly bookmarks post for future reference*

    Thanks tigtog, great post.

  9. I’m not sure where I came across this (perhaps the Twitter of a Hoydenizen, even), but Words and Offense is a good complementary read.

  10. [Moderator note: eliminationist language has been encrypted with rot-13]
    What if I don’t care to be an acceptance nazi and I do not think that I have to accept everything and everyone as having a right [rot-13]gb rkvfg[/rot-13]/be accepted? I guess I’ll just keep using gay as a contemptuos word and think less of you for being part of the new age paradigm.
    I look around myself on a daily basis and see that really things would have been alot better if some Do Not Cross Lines had been enforced, rather than removing discipline as too traumatising. (Women’s rights and no violence against women are examples of awesome steps forward, the removal of violence as forms of self protection and discipline…. not so good)

    • William, welcome to the blog. Have you read our comments policy? It’s probably a good idea before you continue commenting here.
      Nobody’s forcing you to be tolerant, kind or empathise with others or acknowledge their dignity. I just think it’s an ethical standard to aim for. Your mileage appears to vary.
      If you choose not to live up to that ethical standard, others will notice, and some of those folks may well tell more folks what they have noticed. If you don’t like having your low ethical standards pointed out, then the remedy is simple – elevate them.

      • P.S. I’m choosing not to engage your tangent on self-defence and discipline – that’s potentially derailing. Stick to the topic, please.

  11. I LOLed at “acceptance Nazi”.

  12. @ tigtog — speaking of warning labels and making it easy to know who to not bother to engage with,
    @Helen — what tigtog said. Everything Le Guin has ever written supports the idea that she finds all sorts of bigotry appalling, and would find it doubly so in a family member. I’m not sure why you leapt to the conclusion that she would find it acceptable. I highly suggest reading her work so see why tigtog and I both had a strong “buh???” reaction to that.

  13. agggh. Unclear. The first part was in regard to William, not Helen. Helen merely misread the motives of a well-known author. William was doing an excellent impersonation of a really unoriginal troll.

    • William was doing an excellent impersonation of a really unoriginal troll.

      I found the mental image of an “acceptance Nazi” rather delightfully outré, Wondering what the uniform might be.

  14. well, I took one of those internet quizzes once that determined that my “Unitarian Jihad” name was ‘Sister Sword of Compassion’. I’m thinking armor, actually, with a jaunty little chainmail skirt and thigh high boots.

    • OK, now I’m seeing fan-fic about the internecine feud between the acceptance-nazis and the compassion-nazis, furiously waged via bake-offs.

  15. thanks, tigtog. Now I have to bleach my brain.

  16. Seriously now that the mocking has run its course, I greatly appreciate Mary’s link upthread to the Words and Offense post at genderbitch as a companion piece. I’d love to see more links to other posts that readers think make good companion pieces to this one.

  17. @ Helen – I can see what you mean, there could be a pile of unexamined privilege there, but as she is primarily talking about swear words pertaining to sex and bodily functions it is hard to tell. I don’t know a lot of her writing so I can’t say either way, but I’m leaning toward the benefit of the doubt for no other reason than I want it to be that way.
    @ Tigtog – great post.

    Or you can refuse to acknowledge that choosing to use words that arise from bigotry only perpetuates that bigotry, and vigorously defend your right to express your opinions while using such words, thus demonstrating that you appear to be wearing your arse as a hat right now

    How nice of someone to illustrate this point for you.

  18. I love this post.
    Is it ok if I share a link and a caption from it on my tumblr?

    • @Alien Tea, thanks for asking, but so long as you stick to the general principles of “fair use” as applied to copyright, feel free to share whatever you like.

  19. Thanks

  20. In my opinion, the author’s somewhat condescending tone in the article may actually alienate some readers from fully digesting the well thought out ideas presented. I think everyone can benefit from some thought provoking reading that begs self inspection. I don’t believe antagonizing/shaming your reader does quite as effectively to communicate this point (unless you are intentionally speaking in an “exclusionary” fashion to the group on the PC perfect pedestal that can pat themselves on the back).
    It’s very easy to premise with the “work-in-progress” proclamation while shaming the rest. Maybe if this could lend itself as more of an invitation rather than a challenge?

  21. She wasn’t condescending, she was contemptuous. There’s a difference. This isn’t a learning issue, it’s an issue of basic human decency. It is not exclusionary to say “if you act like an asshat, I’ll call you an asshat.”
    Also, you lose points for having the “perfect” strawman in your response, shortly after tigtog’s post says “Note that I don’t think I’ve rooted out all my toxic baggage, nor that anybody can entirely. We are all works in progress.” She is asking for effort, not perfection. Also, she’s right fucking here, and her name is tigtog, and calling her “the author” makes you sound like a pretentious fifteen year old.
    And you, cloud, are doing what is commonly know as “concern trolling”. And you used one of the oldest extant trolls: the “tone argument”. I give you an C for overall effort, simply because you managed to spell and manage basic sentence composition — but an F for creativity.
    (sorry, tigtog, if the troll rating is uncalled for. I was bored.)

    • @Maureen, I don’t think the troll rating is entirely uncalled for, since we do see it used so often as a deliberate derailing tactic, but I am also aware that because the tone argument is so embedded in public discourse, that some people have actually bought it hook, line and sinker. It’s often used unthinkingly as a reflexive self-derailer; a way for folks to push aside discomforting concepts by concentrating on their presentation rather than their substance. Until Cloud makes a few more comments, we really don’t know where sie falls amongst these hypotheticals. That’s why I’m reasonably keen on the Three Comment Rule here.
      @Cloud, if I’d been offering an invitation I would have written an invitation. I wrote a counter-challenge to the oft-hurled accusation that anybody who calls out bigoted language is, to borrow a phrase used upthread, an “acceptance nazi”, a member of the PC-brigade, a thin-skinned easily-offended type who should just grow a sense of humour and stop taking offense so easily. I’m comfortable with it being confronting – that’s the point.
      This post is a quite deliberate challenge to anybody who runs the “you have no right to not be offended” line of argument when challenged on using words based in bigotry. The problem is not that they are being offensive. The problem is that openly expressed bigotry stigmatises all outliers from the social norm, and reinforces traditions of discrimination, exclusion and oppression, and that these folks defending bigoted slurs don’t think that this matters at all. That gobsmacking display of their own social privilege while refusing to own that they have it deserves contempt.
      It’s easy to get a clue on social justice. You just have to recognise that we don’t have it yet, and that if you’re reading these words on a computer screen then you have a lot more social privilege than most folks in the world. That doesn’t make any of us bad people unless we refuse to recognise that we have a ton of advantages, and refuse to stop heaping more shit on other people who’ve already got enough crap to carry around. Those of us who do refuse to acknowledge the privileges we have once it’s pointed out are pretty contemptible.

  22. @Cloud, your comment currently in moderation crossed with mine. For the moment I’m going to take your professed newbie status at face value, and give you the opportunity to rewrite your argument to be more on-topic re the post and less distracted with personalised commentary.
    I recommend that you read our commenting policy before submitting your next comment here.

  23. @tigtog I’ll be good. I’ve had a pretty crappy day and cloud’s comment just hit me the wrong way. (Think migraine plus bad news, and that was my day)
    @cloud, as snarky as my comment was, there really was constructive criticism in it. There used to be a wonderful feminism 101 blog around (I haven’t been there in awhile and don’t know if its still there) and you could have avoided getting the brunt of my bad temper if you’d read there first. One concept related to your post that is pretty standard for activists but not generally known is”silencing”, and that’s what I was calling you out on when I said “tone argument”.
    I’m usually pretty willing to educate people on the concepts, but every now and then, I’m all about “schooling” them, instead. Today you got the “schooling” end of my ruler. Sorry that I took my bad day out on you.

  24. Oops. It took me too long to write the comment, I did not see the new additions.
    I completely agree with you Tigtog.
    The reason why your article was very thought provoking to me, is because I’ve often gotten into similar disagreements with one of my friends where she called me on what I had thoughtlessly said. I have learned many a things from my more PC friend, but of course, I’m far from where I’d like to be (lot’s more room for improvement).
    In these personal experiences I’ve had, I’ve always found that the contemptuous nature of our tones quite often overshadowed what we were truly trying to express.
    I simply felt that I was more openminded and understood my friend better (when she wasn’t on her high horse pointing at how backwards I was).
    When I read your article, I also wanted to share it with my less PC friend. I’m not a great writer/argument constructor (as demonstrated by the previous comments), but I felt strength and truth from your article that I related to, and felt that you’ve expressed the lot in a conclusive way much better than I could manage. This I feel was the article’s success. But I was hesitant because I felt that it would be offensive to my less PC friend, as I came down on my high horse pointing fingers myself.
    That’s the back story (written even quicker and with less editing than before).
    I must say, I feel some immediate backlash (maybe deserved), akin to being put on trial for saying something different from the regular rally of supporters here.
    I wonder if this would have gone a lot smoother if I just kept quiet about my minor complaint and gave a big generic Bravo! Do you think my Bravo would have been scrutinized so harshly?
    To wrap up, I think this was way too exciting (somewhat negative) experience for a newb. I think I will keep my controversial and half baked comments to myself next time. But I will be sure to look up the straw man argument and tone argument 🙂

  25. Oops again.

    Ok, sorry just read your last comment about no personal comments.
    Man I really am a newb.

    Sorry will not post again.

    • Sorry will not post again.

      That really is not my intent. Please don’t confuse personalised comments with personal comments – they are actually two different things, and both are potentially problematic but for different reasons. Personal comments that tell your own story are not always a bad thing, except you do seem to be a bit impulsive and could do with editing for some brevity.
      Personalised comments take the arguments away from the concept and put it on to personalities. This tends to derail substantive discussion.

      I wonder if this would have gone a lot smoother if I just kept quiet about my minor complaint and gave a big generic Bravo! Do you think my Bravo would have been scrutinized so harshly?

      When you challenge something, prepare for a counter-challenge. I’m totally prepared for people to counter-challenge my challenging post as you just did. That doesn’t mean that every complaint/challenge will be considered relevant/credible.
      Could this post have been written as a gentler invitation to social justice discourse? Of course, and others are welcome to recast anything I’ve used here in exactly that format. But I chose to not do it that way for my own rhetorical reasons, and I stand by that choice.

  26. Cloud, I’ve been a commenter here on and off for years, and tigtog called me out for being too hard on you (rightly). It is really, really easy to get your bit in your teeth in the middle of a fine argument and then hit “enter” and realize you just used a nuclear bomb instead of silly string. Dissent is fine. With this last comment you posted, I want to double up on my apology to you. I can be kind of a bear sometimes, and I should have respected the three comment rule (and I didn’t have your excuse — I knew about the rules). Welcome.

  27. lol @ tigtog I’d forgotten that was yours. IIRC at one point I was helping in some capacity, but I can’t remember how now. I used to show that around EVERYWHERE.

  28. Always happy to oblige… and if anyone ever starts hanging out at my blog, I’d appreciate the same 🙂

  29. Thanks for this post – a really great explanation that I’m sure I will be referring to in the future!

  30. I can vouch for Cloud that she is definitely not a troll.

  31. Delurking simply to say that I love this post.
    I’ve called people out on language in the past and often been accused of actively looking for things to be offended about. “Retarded” is a big one for me, since it seems to be one of the more widespread and accepted marginalising terms and because I currently work in disability. Being told that I’m too sensitive always leaves me a little bit flummoxed, because what I was trying to say was something more along the lines “wow, you just managed to insult and marginlise every person who has a disability, my opinion of you is substantially less than it was a moment ago”.
    To be fair, I have been on the other side, and for someone who considers themselves open-minded and inclusive, it hurts to be told you’re acting like a racist. The person who told me this was actually right, but my pride took a huge hit and it was a while before I’d own up to it.
    You’re right about the rewards, though. I think being willing to admit and confront toxic aspects of both your culture and personality opens up an entire world of new people and experiences, which has made my life that much richer for it.
    Anyway, enough of the bravo-ing.

  32. Oh, it seems there is another person writing under the name Cloud, and that this Cloud is not the same person I am used to seeing on forums.. which must have made my comment a bit confusing to this particular Cloud, sorry about that. Should have clarified with you first, this Cloud.

  33. Extremely valid. I like it…however, i think i only agree in moderation. obviously there is a time and a place, and the author’s argument seems to imply that most who use this form of dialog are inferior and ignorant and unintentionally a victim of inherently “toxic” cultures. This is not entirely untrue, BUT in the bigger picture, denies the wildly successful and fascinating re-appropriation of words and phrases which have essentially eradicated themselves of their root “offense.” This insubordinate lexicon that we have become rather comfortable with as of late is largely hilarious, amazing and possibly just as enlightening as sophisticated vocabulary in the right context. Obviously if you ask me how my day went and i say “Fucking pregnant people are assholes…” one should not assume that this will be taken lightly, and yes…it is entirely unnecessary.
    I believe there is an important science to the employment of inappropriate dialog. I strongly disagree that it is “a toxic blight on human dignity” as the author has deemed it… there is certainly a reason beyond the root of offensive phraseology that ticks certain people off.
    Language is a software medium. Profanity, slander and our ability to draw powerful emotions from such simple vocabulary is some extremely advanced programming in my opinion. I’m not saying it’s always a great idea… I am just saying I think it’s fascinating and worth keeping around.
    This is however, and absolutely an important perspective and I’m glad you’ve shared it.

  34. Vine and a couple of others addressed my point above. I have sometimes (politely, I thought) expressed something along these lines to people and they have gotten really upset with me, because they take it as me criticising them personally, saying that the way they talk is inferior/wrong, that I think I am so smart, etc. (Took me a while to work out this was how they felt as they didn’t say this, they just got angry.)
    While bigoted language is still crap, some people in the world are completely uninterested in improving themselves and will just get angry and hurt if you suggest this stuff. One person in particular who does this to me is a close relative. I can’t stop being myself and pointing this stuff out (I try to bite my tongue more these days) and they aren’t interested in my opinion or biting their own tongue, so…
    Anyone else experienced this… and worked out a good way to deal with it?

  35. Should have said, I didn’t just mean improving themselves – I meant more being a more pleasant person for others to be around, being aware that their own unexamined thoughts/actions can have an effect on others, etc.

  36. I’ve just tweaked the settings on this post via a plugin to have comments stay open, because I just linked to it on a post.

  37. Tigtog, I just came across this post and wanted to thank you for articulating the differences between these two words. I have tried unsuccessfully to do this in the past.

    I am curious to know what words/language appears on your list of oppressive language. (I understand it may not be an actual list.) I likely can guess most of them, but I was wondering if there are any you feel are still in wide use that ought not be?

    Any and all responses are welcome. Thank you again!

    • Hi Savanna, welcome to Hoyden about Town. I see this post has had a bit of a Twitter revival in visitors today – welcome to you all!
      I link in the OP to a post by Melissa at Shakesville where she blogged about contempt vs offense in 2009 (if you google “shakesville not offended contemptuous” then you should find several posts exploring the concept), mine was just a different rhetorical take on it.
      There’s still a bunch of oppressive language in general use, often as a point of pride in fighting the very very important fight against the dreaded PC brigade – I redact it when it’s used on blogs I moderate.

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