So, here it is. The first, hopefully not too contentious, cultural perspective piece – my attempts to dissect some aspect of culture or philosophy whilst not coming across as too cantankerous or irate. There are lots of fun, lighter topics I’ve got in mind for future musings, but I felt compelled to write this one in light of recent arguments on marriage equality in Australia and social welfare in New Zealand in the lead-up to our upcoming 2017 election. Basically, asking the questions: “Why are ‘Liberals’ the only ones accused of being so easily offended?” and “Where does the anger at being empathetic towards others come from?”. The aim is not to talk about the issues that people get offended by, but rather the nature of offense itself. I endeavour to explore this in a meaningful and respectful manner…let’s see how it goes, shall we.
It’s PC gone madder
It’s a common accusation: those liberals are so easily offended by everything; it’s political correctness gone mad; they’re just too sensitive these days! Terms like ‘precious petals’, ‘delicate flowers’, and ‘special snowflakes’ are bandied around freely in an attempt to suggest that some people just need to harden up and take the world for what it is. What is curious though is that these arguments seem seldom levied in the opposite direction, despite the preponderance of examples of conservative hysteria about other people’s lives vis-à-vis marriage equality, gender equality, racial and cultural diversity, and in general any challenge to privileged positions or entrenched moralities.
They’re so easily offended!
Yes, but not who you think. Conservative activists and, more generally, those in privileged positions in society (be they straight, white, male, wealthy, strong, thin, etc) are just as easily offended by people they don’t know and, strangely, those whose actions have no impact on their lives. The big difference these days is that the world they’re living in is becoming increasingly diverse, and suddenly they’re being told they’re being offensive rather than everyone just putting up with it. I’ve tried to break it down below into three manifestations of offense: the good (not really good, but least malicious and easily remedied), the bad, and the ugly:
The ‘Good’: You’ve no doubt heard the retort to some offensive comment or micro-aggression that “oh, it’s just a joke, harden up”. Historically, just one person (the receiver, for lack of a better term) was dragged down by this. The difference now is that the person making the comment (the aggressor) is being told that they’ve offended someone and this gets their back up because you’ve challenged their self-worth as a good person – so everyone’s offended. Brilliant. “People are just too sensitive” they’ll say, “it’s PC-gone mad!”
If we were a sensible species these would be opportunities to learn from. Sure, you’re free to make that offensive comment or joke (just because someone challenges you doesn’t mean your freedom of speech is being taken away), but is it really worth it?
You can’t control if someone will feel offended by what you’ve said, and you can no longer expect to just get away with it for the sake of the general good humour. What you can do is choose your audience carefully and be respectful if you have unintentionally said something that makes someone else uncomfortable. Offensive things can be fine if people consent to them first – see Jimmy Carr’s comedy for example (or this). Most of the time, I’d guess no-one wants to be malicious and actually offend their interlocutor. Instead, one could use it as the chance to explore new perspectives because the world isn’t gonna get any more un-diverse and homogeneous anytime soon, despite some people’s best efforts.
The ‘Bad’: Aside from unintended offense, some people seem instead to be brought to anger when confronted by what they consider to be undue or undeserved empathy. It’s perhaps not completely unexpected that a privileged person, myself very much included in many respects (cis, white, western, middle-class, educated, male, etc) would not have been exposed to the challenges, struggles, or inequalities that others experience, and thus have never given non-privileged groups any consideration until provided the chance to critically view their circumstances. It’s something you learn over time as you expose yourself to new people and new ideas.
How you react to the reality that life may not be so hunky-dory for everyone else, or that others may have different opinions, is up to you. Without getting into the complex socio-political and economic arguments of the day about whether we should provide a leg-up in society to those who have less, or whether it’s “every man for himself”, Darwin-style, I simply query why the mere discussion of these topics seems to cause offense, and why it brings peoples’ blood to the boil so readily.
That person down the street who’s not as qualified as you and wants some help in getting educated or to break out of a cycle of poverty, does that annoy you even though you know nothing about their circumstances? Do so-called “Social Justice Warriors” who campaign for anything from human rights to climate change, to animal rights, and racial equality, have you seeing red when they express strong empathy and consideration for others? If so, why? When did empathy become a bad thing and why are so many conservatives so delicate about this, often disregarding any debate before it starts. And don’t get them started on public protests, that really annoys them.
The ‘Ugly’: And then there’s the far darker side where people go out of their way to be actively malicious, or to try to control other peoples’ lives. They have personal opinions on how others who they’ve never met, need to live their lives, eat, love, and feel. They’re vocal, vile, and vitriolic with their attacks towards other people’s lifestyles (e.g. veganism), and in some cases their very existence (e.g. LGBTQ), regardless of the fact there is no objective impact on the aggressors’ lives; rather just some subjective offense against their self-worth or idea of how the universe must be. This is where the truly dark nature of humans and their social, religious, and cultural constructs becomes apparent, making me really worry whether we can ever grow past these hatreds as a society or if these divisions are becoming more entrenched as we grow in population and ideological isolation. These are the people I really don’t understand. Why do they have such strong feelings about how I live my life, and why are they so offended by any deviation from their perception of how one should be? They contort the facts to make the most spurious arguments to justify their positions – the old slippery slope, the erosion of morality, or offense to some kindly yet wrathful deity. There’s some knee-jerk reaction of disgust and offense that some other category of person exists in their otherwise idealised world. And when challenged, suddenly they claim that they’re being attacked and persecuted – not the people they’re trying to oppress. It’s not that they expressed an opinion and someone else countered with an opinion of their own. No, suddenly, their free-speech is ‘under attack’ just because someone disagreed with them. They decry calls for equality but then try to justify hate-speech as freedom.
Below, I explore a few examples of communities at which conservatives have taken aim, trying to understand why they feel the minutiae of others’ lives impacts them so deeply.
Where does the anger come from?! Not those vegetarians or vegans perceived as rabid or ranty but rather from the meat-eating omni majority of the west. Yes, some members of any ideological bent get preachy and can take things to extreme, but so many meat-eaters seem personally attacked by the idea that not everyone eats animals. There are heaps of strong academic, ethical, and health arguments for moving away from meat and animal-based diets, even if many of us haven’t been successful translating that into action (cognitive dissonance strikes again). But no one is forcing you to give up your steak, and the majority of vegans and vegies will not bother you unless you start an argument. So why do you go after them?
When confronted with the idea of veganism, the jokes and micro-aggressions are tossed out enthusiastically, usually involving implications that all non-animal based foods are just bland rabbit food with delusion as the only seasoning. Not only is this hugely inaccurate, seeing as vegan foods are as diverse and delicious, it also stifles the understanding of what our food is actually made of: after-all, Oreos, hot chips, and coke are vegan and I don’t see people complaining about those – they’re awesome (and dispel the myth that veganism is automatically healthy).
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Many meat-eaters go out of their way to actively sabotage and attack non-meat diets, suggesting they’re collapsing the economy by not eating meat, or by hiding meat in vegan family members’ food. In one recent example here in NZ a group tried to crash a vegan picnic with a Steak and Egg fry-up. Really? Where is the anger coming from that you can’t just let people eat what they want in peace without interfering? How does this affect your lives?
I find it not dissimilar to the resistance against various other liberal social movements throughout history – marriage equality being perhaps the most contemporary example in the . With veganism, maybe on some level, people feel there is an implication that they’re not a good person because someone else chooses to exercise a personal ethical imperative to not cause suffering.
Disagreeing with someone respectfully in discussion and opinion is one thing, but this veganophobia and vitriol towards non-meat-eaters is a bizarre side of some people that they need to let go of. Calm down and eat some Oreos – they’re vegan after-all.
‘The Gays’ and ‘Transgenders’
Firstly, I feel compelled to dispel a pet-peeve: ‘The Gays’ don’t exist as some cohesive, agenda-having secret Spectre-like organisation and ‘Transgender’ is an adjective, please stop putting an ‘s’ on it as if it were a noun.
The source of anger or offense over issues of marriage equality, sexual and gender diversity education, and more generally the notion of tolerance or acceptance towards those in rainbow communities (LGBT) has many different roots. Whilst liberals by definition1 disagree on the substance of these issues compared to their conservative detractors, the answer to “why is this person offended?” is simple if violates some underlying morality or religious rule. After all, rules are rules! There was even an instance recently of a straight couple having their wedding cancelled at a church, just because they expressed support for marriage equality on Facebook – the act of just having that thought was something their church could not abide by.
There are many instances however where there seems to be no reason to why sexual and gender diversity causes a personal, visceral offense in some conservatives, leaving one perplexed as to where this anger is coming from. Where’s the notion of live-and-let-live? There are the old explanations that another person’s sexuality somehow has a bearing on your own if they’re in proximity (“guilty by association, I guess”), or that somehow including everyone in the equal marriage club’ diminishes the meaning of one’s own (that is, marriage is only special if we exclude some people like we used to for mixed-race couples and other groups in the past).
But then there are also some arguments that are being dragged out against equality and tolerance that are bizarre, complete non-sequiturs, or demonstrably false – it’s easily fact-checked that those countries that have passed marriage equality laws haven’t fallen into moral disarray (they’re usually the happiest, least-crime ridden, wealthiest places on the planet). So, the question remains unanswered – why do sexual and gender minorities so easily cause offense?
If being too quick to take offense over the smallest slight, or demanding that people conform to some politicized ideal (a political correctness, if you will), or even if it’s just being overly sensitive to the details of other people’s lives, then some conservatives can exhibit these attributes in spades, at least as much as they accuse their liberal counterparts. Should they be called out on it in an effort to prevent shutting down the actual debate or is that furthering this division? How do we remove this notion that it’s just one side that can be a little hot under the collar or a little too sensitive? I don’t know – but hopefully that doesn’t make you too mad now I’ve made you read all this.
Terminology, Sources, and Footnotes