I was eleven years old in 1993 when the Internet was just starting to explode into our lives. That makes me just about old enough to say I grew up with the Internet, but just about young enough to notice how completely it was changing my world. After living with it and all it brings for twenty years and more there's little left that truly offends me, and yet I find myself accused (either directly or indirectly) of being offended and over-reacting rather regularly. So what's going on there?
I don't find it particularly surprising that little respect is given to the idea of offence. "People are so easily offended, these days," it is said. It rather conjours images of people reacting with horror to some "un-PC" joke, their monocles dropping into their teacups from the sheer consternation of it all.
Thought of in that way, it all seems so avoidable. You see this in the language used - "I don't know why people choose to be offended by this," that sort of thing. If people would just relax (which ought to be easy for people my age and younger who have grown up with all the offence the Internet has to offer) then all of this silliness could be avoided, right?
The trouble is, the monocle-dropping caricature of what's happening when someone is 'offended' doesn't bear much relation to what's actually going on. While it's not quite true to say nothing shocks me anymore, my (and I suspect many other people's) initial reaction is usually something more akin to a world-weary rolling of the eyes.
But it doesn't matter how offended I am or appear to be. The truth is, whether and how someone is offended is at best a symptom, a side effect of what's really wrong.
Defending those 'edgy' jokes just because you don't think there's anything wrong with offending people is a bit like defending the Hunger Games just because you don't think there's anything wrong with kids getting a little competitive. People who have this view haven't just managed to ignore the elephant in the room. They've managed to mistake a mouse for the elephant.
So in a way, I can understand their puzzlement when it is suggested to them there's more to this story. When the discussion is framed in terms of offence, it limits the scope to hurt feelings, diverts attention away from more serious forms of harm.
Before I go on, a quick note. I'm going to talk about this in terms of homophobia, because that's what is closest to my personal experience, but really I'm talking about all forms of stereotyping, prejudice, bigotry. If there's something else that you relate to, I'm pretty sure that you'll be able to find something you recognise in this too.
I want to make what I hope are a few uncontroversial points which I think outline the real discussion which is being missed when people get distracted by this word 'offence'.
1) Prejudice doesn't come from nowhere
There's a notion, one that appears particularly appealing to defenders of homophobia, that their reactions of discomfort, disgust even, is simply a normal human reaction. That while they "don't have anything against" LGBTQ+ people, expecting straight people not to react negatively to seeing, say, a gay couple kiss in public or hold hands is a step too far. After all, they are not attracted to that, so their reaction is normal.
It's an argument that has some superficial draw, and had I been straight I might have even believed it myself if I was never forced to think about it too much. But as many LGBTQ+ people will tell you, before they came out to anyone else they had to come out to themselves. Having gone through that process I understand only too well how I was weirded out by my own feelings. How when I first took my tentative steps towards exploring my sexuality my reaction was initially of extreme discomfort that I never experienced with 'straight stuff'. The only reason I can think this would be the case is that I learned exactly the same latent homophobia that everyone else learned, and I had to unlearn it before I could even be honest with myself.
So when I say prejudice doesn't come from nowhere, I mean that it is acquired, learned - in many cases even by the victims of that prejudice.
2) We learn through exposure
I hope that it's not controversial to say that we learn through exposure, but when I talk about exposure I mean on every conceivable level. Think of how you learned the words you read on this page now. Some of them your teachers or others might have explained to you, or you looked up, but a whole lot of them you just absorbed through context, over time. They're second nature to you now and you probably can't identify a single point when you acquired them, but they didn't just get there by magic.
Intuitively, it's a similar thing with attitudes. They didn't just get there by magic. We keep a lot of the attitudes we are taught, but also we acquire them based on what we are exposed to, and anything else is abnormal, other. Obviously this is a simplification, but it's a servicable one. And thought about that way it's easy to see how a LGBTQ+ person can grow up with latent homophobia. You can believe intellectually and feel emotionally what you like about homosexuality, but that's still not going to trump years and years of exposure, without considerable effort.
I grew up on a diet of films, books, games and so forth that celebrated straight relationships and very little else. Right now it's quite common to have a bit of LGBTQ+ representation in a TV series or film, though I do think we're still not very good at this at all for reasons that are probably out of scope for this discussion. For the first decade of my life homosexuality as a concept wasn't even something I was even aware of. And that left only a couple of years before I would start to have to contend with my own feelings.
My exposure to homosexuality when it did come was almost entirely through news stories where someone coming out was a big and controversial deal, playground insults, jokes on television which probably would not be broadcast now. I was well into my mid-teens before I encountered a positive portrayal of a gay relationship. So it's no surprise that it took me several years to even understand and recognise that I was attracted to guys, and then longer to come to terms with the fact.
I have mostly been free of mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, I have an extremely supportive and loving family, I live in a society that is mostly on the more tolerant end of the spectrum. Yet it still took me years to figure out something that straight people don't even have to think about. Is it so hard to imagine that someone whose circumstances are less ideal than mine have a much bigger struggle?
This is why visibility is so important, both in quality and quantity. This is why trying to encourage more LGBT representation in characters, especially protagonists isn't simply attention-seeking behaviour. And this is why when we see representations that are more harmful than good, or jokes that rely on lazy stereotyping, it's so frustrating. It isn't just "political correctness gone mad." It's not an exaggeration to say that lives could be improved, even saved by media that makes people feel less alone where their own circumstances, peers and families let them down.
And even if you think that's all bunk, I'm yet to hear a good argument as to why LGBTQ+ shouldn't have representation in the media that's proportional with reality. Because right now it's not even close - you do realise that, right? If it bothers you that this game has a lesbian couple or that TV series has a bisexual protagonist because it seems somehow 'forced' to you, I'd be curious to how you'd feel if the numbers actually represented the world at large.
3) This stuff gets everywhere
When I was at school, I went on a skiing trip. We were four boys to a room, and one of them in particular was only too happy to make his homophobic views known, at just about the time that I had just come to acknowledge my own sexuality but was still thoroughly closeted. A self proclaimed homophobe who declared that he thought gay people should be taken out and shot, I wasn't about to say a thing that might give him any reason at all to suspect that I ought to be a target of his hatred. But I saw his homophobic bullying of plenty of people I'm now fairly sure are either straight or bisexual, since they are now married to women. Including another person staying in our room.
Homophobia doesn't just cause problems for gay people. No, it's a stick to beat anyone with who seems a little bit different, not just "one of the lads." And it's very easy just to shrug and say things like "boys will be boys" and assume that most will grow out of it. But some don't, and as we've seen it's hard to shrug off years of exposure to negative attitudes, even if you believe yourself to be more open minded.
I'm not trying to appeal to your selfish nature just by saying 'look, you can be a victim too!' The biggest harm is completely invisible to most people, until they're forced to look at it.
Straight guys, try an experiment: imagine two men kissing in public. Does the thought make you uncomfortable in any way? Does it gross you out even a little bit, for even a second? Longer?
Here, I'll help you out if you're feeling maybe it does but you usually think better of yourself: I am still not completely over seeing gay people show affection in public, despite being out for nearly half my life. It still gives me a bit of a jolt of discomfort in a way seeing straight people kiss doesn't, probably because I only see it happening in public on very rare occasions.
Part of that is because there are a lot more straight people, true. But even taking that into account if gay people were as willing to display affection publicly as straight people you should be seeing examples of it several times every week, and I doubt many of you are. Doesn't take too much imagination to figure out why that might be.
But because I don't see it several times every week, my first reaction is thinking 'oh, weird' before I process what I'm looking and mentally tell myself off for that reaction. So, seriously, if seeing this does weird you out then I understand. You're probably not a terrible person. But recognise it for what it is - a learned response based on what you've been exposed to growing up.
If, as a socially liberal-minded person, that though makes you a little angry, then yes - it probably should.
Where all this takes us is that being offended no longer seems like an extravagance, a chosen reaction with no utility once you lose the assumption that offence is as far as it goes, as far as it could ever go. It's easy to shrug off a percieved overreaction. Harder to shrug off bullying, a beating, a suicide. Harder to shrug off a mass shooting.
It's not that every off-colour remark or joke at the expense of LGBTQ+ people is going kill people, and perhaps that's the issue. People have trouble connecting the dots. It's just that every time you tell one, it's like a little doggie treat that you're throwing as a reward for the idea that LGBTQ+ people, when visible at all, should be mocked, othered, and rejected as a normal part of society*, and it helps perpetuate those same attitudes that even I acquired. Hence that Pavlovian response I still, to this day and despite being in a ten year relationship, experience when I see a same-gender display of affection where I don't expect.
So what should you really be angry about, what makes you want to change the world?
That some people protest when they see certain kinds of things that belittle or stereotype sections of society?
Or that society has trained even those of us who believe ourselves to be inclusive and accepting to feel uncomfortable when two people kiss?
I hope I've managed to explain how these two things are connected.
The second one is what I want to do something about, and I have and will gladly modify my behaviour where needed. There are, after all, an infinite amount of jokes I can still tell and points I can still make - and I don't think anyone who knows me would claim I've lost my sense of humour. If anything, I wield jokes with greater precision now, because I'm more careful not to resort to lazy phrases or simplifications. I've even consciously removed a couple of lazy words from my vocabulary, which required effort at first but no longer does. I dont miss them because they've been replaced by more thoughtful words which actually get closer to what I really meant.
Does that mean I worry about offending people? That I'm censoring myself because of that? It's not really something I think about, if I'm particularly honest. I just don't want someone, somewhere to feel smaller, either indirectly or directly because of something I did. Because I understand where that goes and I want no part of it.
*It is possible to use satire to give the appearance of bigotry while actually cleverly doing the opposite, and this is a frequent defense that is given. But if the Internet has taught me anything it's that few people have the knack for weilding satire as a precision comedy tool. Satire is a more specific thing than 'it was just a joke,' and claiming satire isn't a magic shield to protect you from criticism.