What is “offensive”?

Playing online games gives me a lot of material to consider the question of what it is to be offensive. Faced with a range of negative behaviors, from simple immaturity to more complex, disturbing inflammatory efforts, I wonder as I marvel at the raging: What is “offense”? How (and why) do we give it? How much of it is in whose control— do others have power over our emotions? Can something be universally or objectively offensive?

We face issues of offense outside cyberspace, of course. Recently, a student demanded that other students (at a university level) stop a conversation before class in a classroom because it was offensive. (The subject was the death penalty.) Of the many questions we might ask, I pose this one: What right does someone have to make such a demand? I am reminded of the quotation by Stephen Fry that made rounds on the internet indicating that such a claim lacks force.

As I often do, I wonder about a larger picture: that my fellow gamers often live in the context of a democratic society ruled by law. Does our first amendment allow us to offend others? Does the fact of a legal right to offend permit a moral right to do so (wantonly)?

Whatever it means to offend, we should be careful about how often we do it and why. I am sometimes fond of the adage that “a gentleman never gives offense unintentionally.” I think offense has a role in our language and in our society- there are times we want to barb others, perhaps to spur them to action or to give added power to a point that deserves deep force. Yet, as with so many other tools in our arsenal of interpersonal relations, as we overuse the ability to offend, we only demolish the meaning and significance of the act. In a world in which I am slapped once per year, the slap has significance. In a world in which I am slapped daily, I neither know nor care who is slapping me or why, and my face will lose feeling.

All too often, we offend because we are angry or frustrated at something else, and use insults and degrading comments to vent our unhappiness (often at undeserving targets). Being more thoughtful about the offense we give not only gives more power to our offense when we give it, but helps us face our actual problems and frustrations rather than avoid them. Thinking about why we are yelling at a teammate in an online game might lead us to understand that we are actually unsatisfied with our own performance in the game- or that we are really not over an argument we had earlier in the day with a friend.

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Pigeon Syndrome

“Arguing with people on the internet is like playing chess with a pigeon: no matter how well you play, the pigeon will just knock the pieces over, defecate all over the board, and strut around like it won.” Amusing because we can all relate to it, but is this reflective of something deeper in society? People seem to lack the patience and interest to explore issues deeply and thoroughly. Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) pointed out that the Lincoln-Douglas debates consisted of a series of speeches that lasted several hours as the senatorial candidates argued for their platforms in great depth and detail, as large crowds sat and listened and thought about the arguments before them—contrast that with today’s political rhetoric of superficial sound bites.

Many times I’ve heard people ask a legitimate question: “Why do people do that? Why does that happen? What can’t this be done?” I used to try to explain the answers, but consistently found that people will lose interest in any answer in about 50 words or 5 seconds. They care enough to ask the question, but not enough to put effort into finding answers. On the internet, people are quick to get defensive (usually in an offensive manner), but are more inclined to write “stfu” or “tldr” rather than engage in any kind of meaningful, interesting, or critical discourse. I think it’s sophomoric to dismiss the [non-] interlocutors as “not smart enough”  to keep up with a discussion on why stealing farm in League of Legends is irritating and unhelpful or a thread criticizing the way rape is viewed or discussed in society. I think most participants can understand the words and learn the relevant concepts, especially when they have Google, Wikipedia, and Dictionary.com at their fingertips throughout the conversation. Rather, I think they are more inclined to hide in ignorance than dare to learn something new because of fear and shame.

I think one factor holding people back from seriously exploring questions as adolescents and adults (notice that young children don’t have this problem nearly as often) is their embarrassment at not already knowing the questions they ask. Increasingly, we are deciding our questions are rhetorical because we are ashamed to find that there are answers to our questions and we just don’t know them yet. This approach has the added incentive of allowing us to be lazy.

A Relevant Image:

http://xkcd.com/386/