The legendary British comedian (and bibliophile with unspeakably good taste in novels) Stephen Fry has a famous quote about people saying they’re offended by other people, which comes from a 2005 interview in The Guardian about his researching of his Jewish ancestry. Anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time on social media has probably seen the quote multiple times, and its popularity when it comes to image treatment has made it almost meme-like. Nearly thirteen years after it was first printed, that quote continues to be thrown around by people of all political persuasions, and its cultural cachet will likely remain undiminished in the years ahead.
I think it’s also one of the most misunderstood quotes on the Internet. When I see it cross my Facebook or Twitter feeds, it’s usually put there by someone who equates the quote with Fry saying “No one should be offended by anything,” when that wasn’t what Fry was insinuating at all. Even without the context of the rest of the article, the quote alone makes it clear that what prompts Fry to say “Well, so fucking what” is not someone being offended, but someone saying that they’re offended. There is a world of difference between those two things, and it’s important to understand that difference, especially in light of this past week’s controversies surrounding Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
While I blanch at the idea of outright condemning anyone who says “I’m offended” in response to anything, I also don’t think that those words constitute the most useful phrase in the English language. When I’m teaching the basics of argumentative writing to my students, I often point out how my generation was the one that popularized the phrase “This sucks,” which ranks about as low as “I’m offended” on the usefulness scale; it’s certainly not the kind of thing you’d want to put in a college English paper. At the same time, though, a lot has been written about how Beavis and Butthead with its “This sucks” refrain was a necessary palate-cleanser after the cultural conformity of the 80’s, a signal to the young teenagers who’d grown up in that decade that it was okay, if not necessary, to question authority. (For all of Beavis and Butthead’s moronic actions, the authority figures around them often made the pair look like Rhodes Scholars by comparison.) In that way, “This sucks” served as a crude kind of consciousness-raising, and I’d argue that “I’m offended” has at least the capability to serve a similar purpose.
The problem with both phrases, however, is that they’re dead-ends when they’re on their own. When “I’m offended” is the beginning and the end of a verbal interaction, not only has the barest scintilla of information been conveyed, but the phrase often serves to shut off all possibilities of dialogue that would open the speaker up to legitimate challenges of their assertion that something was bad or evil or rotten or what have you. In fact, it tends to invite the most illegitimate response, “You shouldn’t be (offended),” which just creates a negativity loop in the person who said “I’m offended” and makes rational discussion all but impossible. (It could be argued that this is a deliberate rhetorical tactic on the part of some people who just like to say “I’m offended,” so they can point to what they feel is their victimization at the hands of others and continue bleating, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Feeling offended by something is not a bad thing; in fact, if I’ve gone through a day and not been offended by some piece of news or opinion that I’ve heard, I feel like I haven’t made good use of that day. Knowing that something is out there that offends me is a good thing, because it lets me know that I’m aware of the environment and cultures in which I live, and that I know that the thing in question is so intolerable to me that it needs to change.
That word — change — is the operative word when it comes to understanding the difference between being offended and merely saying that you’re offended. Telling someone that you’re offended may be cathartic on some levels, but if that catharsis is the sole purpose of saying “I’m offended,” then you haven’t really done much. To be fair, that can be healthy in small doses; there’s nothing wrong about sharing a bad experience with your friends for the purpose of getting sympathy from them, provided that they’re willing to provide that sympathy. However, if you’ve been offended by the same thing several times, and you’re unwilling to do anything to try to change the thing that offends you so much (even if only to ask friends for help effecting that change), then you really open yourself up to the charge of complaining just to hear the sound of your own voice.
When that feeling of being offended becomes the seed of something bigger, though, then it is unquestionably useful. We can argue about what things need changing, and how they should be changed, and the best ways to create a given form of change, but it’s much harder to say “so fucking what” in response to an action plan than to someone saying “I’m offended.”
As an example, I’m very bothered by the conservative response to Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I’d even go so far as to say that the response has offended my sensibilities. If I ended my discussion of the controversy there, then you, as a reader, would be barely any wiser than you were before you read those words, and probably feel like I wasted your time. Since persuasive writing is kind of my thing, though, as I expound on why I’m so bothered in these next few paragraphs, I’ll be presenting and enacting my plan for change at the same time, by attempting to convince you to work with me to effect the change I want to see. (Being a writer does have its advantages.)
Although some have argued that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has become too self-aggrandizing in recent years (even though the only substantial change to the dinner during that time span is how much time news outlets devote to covering it), the spectacle still serves the vital purpose of taking the piss out of the powerful here in America, something this country is in desperate need of. No matter how much a person may accomplish in terms of making money or getting people to vote for them or winning awards, that person is still a person, and people do dumb stuff. We say the wrong things, we get bad haircuts, we misplace our trust, we trip and fall flat on our faces, and so on, but the important word in all of these things is “we.” I have done all those things, and so have you, and that shared experience binds us together in a crucial way, because it creates an understanding that we are all imperfect, we all have our faults, and the same holds true for every person we see on television or walk past on the street.
Without the ability to laugh at one’s self, a person becomes a nuisance at best, and often crosses the line into being a full-fledged asshole. Those tendencies become even more pronounced with the addition of power, which is one of the many reasons why the presidency of Donald Trump has been so toxic for this country. The “comedy” of Trump, ridiculing those with far less power than he has, would be bad enough on its own, but in conjunction with his refusal to tolerate all but the most facile of jokes about himself (the same hair jokes everyone’s been making for decades and the like), it reinforces the notion that our president is a thin-skinned bully who loves dishing out abuse but refuses to tolerate any criticism about himself. In light of the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere pervading this current administration, and how the president himself continues to advance the notion that his office grants him absolute power, the possibility of a national crackdown on dissent, and with it the end of what little democracy remains in America, is not only real, but it is frightening.
Furthermore, the deliberate miscasting of one of Wolf’s jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders as an alleged attack on Sanders’ physical appearance is a dangerous continuation of the right-wing attacks on the language that the rest of us use to describe ourselves and our struggles. At best, it furthers the false definition of feminism as simply challenging criticism of a woman, regardless of the context of that criticism and how it interfaces with the historical oppression of women, part of a two-pronged assault on the very concept of feminism by both openly deriding its commonly-accepted definition and simultaneously trying to appropriate the word by redefining it as the belief that women have the right to be respected and empowered, but only if they function to perpetuate conservative ideology — in other words, to further right-wing authoritarianism and stifle dissent. At worst, it’s yet another example of the open hypocrisy of Trumpian conservatism (how many crude jokes about women’s physical appearances has he made over the years?) that serves to further the idea that rules of any kind, from social conventions to laws and regulations, only apply to other people, and that people like them can do whatever they want because they are inherently superior to the rest of us, meaning that we are all inferior and, thus, deserve whatever abuse they heap on us.
This is why, regardless of how we feel about the alleged puffery of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, we must defend not only Wolf’s performance, but also the very use of comedy as a tool to help keep the powerful in check. Regardless of who is in power of a given situation — someone I dislike, someone I like, or even myself — that power must be accountable, and comedy has been an effective tool of the disadvantaged to cast light on the faults of the powerful since long before the first Europeans settled on these shores some five hundred years ago. Some comedy may be in bad taste, or push boundaries too far, but any authority figure who refuses to be the butt of others’ jokes is already perilously close to dictatorial thinking, and our president right now seems to view any significant criticism of himself as anathema. With a well-oiled media machine pushing that exact thinking to the president’s supporters across the country, the rest of us must push our counter-narrative harder, to protect not only ourselves but also our country as we know it, because an America without healthy dissent is no America at all.
That’s what I think needs to be done, anyway. I’ve tried to do my part by writing here on my little corner of the Internet and, I hope, persuaded some of you to share my beliefs. I’ll try to do what I can to support my assertions through leading by example, by defending the rights of others to poke fun of authority figures (even when I like the authority figures in question), and to avoid just saying “I’m offended” when I’m confronted by things that offend my sensibilities without developing an action plan from that seed. If what I just wrote bothers you in any way, then I hope it leads you to similarly engage in public discourse, here or elsewhere, to explain why you think we should take a different course of action. As much as “so fucking what” may occasionally be an understandable response to someone saying that they’re offended, the reasons for being offended are still important, and we all need to discuss them more, while that discussion is still possible here in America.