This particular post was sparked by the recent Megyn Kelly blackface controversy in which Kelly said (among other things) “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” while defending blackface costumes as “OK” because, basically, they used to be (among the people she knew or remembers as important). The controversy brought into the foreground a debate that every writer or scholar needs to consider: whether or not their words offend others.
Kelly’s defense of blackface was offensive to many people. Whether she revealed total ignorance that some people are offended by blackface or dismissal of those people’s concerns, I leave to the reader to decide.
Kelly’s position highlights something that should be in the foreground of discussions: “offensive” behavior is something that different people judge differently, and the fact that one person is not offended does not mean that another is not offended. When we are concerned with offensive social behavior, the question is who, if anyone, is offended? No behavior is offensive if no one is offended. And if someone is offended, then the behavior is offensive. My general answer to the question asked in this post’s title–who gets to say what is offensive–is “anyone and everyone.”
When someone is offended, one way to respond is to argue that person should not be offended because people at some other specific time and/or place don’t find it offensive (e.g., “no one thought it was offensive when I was young, so it can’t be offensive now!”). And/or to question the right of the people to be offended (e.g., “they shouldn’t be so sensitive!”). Those are essentially the elements of Kelly’s defense of blackface.
Instead of questioning whether a person is right to be offended, or has a right to be offended, another way to address the question of what is offensive is to take a standard like that suggested by the American Psychological Association Publication Manual, which is basically that if someone is offended by what you have written, then it is offensive. (There is, of course, the understanding that factual statements are not bound by this rule. Research has to be able to challenge accepted truths: plenty of people were offended by the idea of evolution.)
Personally, I believe that the APA standard is much the better one. If someone is offended by something I write, the fault lies heavily on me. I am willing to offend people in some circumstances (which circumstances are a matter for another discussion), but it certainly is to be avoided. This is a matter of courtesy, a matter of respect, and, certainly with respect to the expectations of the academic community, and in wider contexts, too, a matter of ethics.
If you respect other people, you do not willingly offend them. The idea that you should respect other people is a very old one (I would say it was a “conservative” principle, except for the willingness, and even glee, with which people who currently call themselves conservative flout it). The idea that we should respect other people is a principle we can find in religions through history. According to the Bible, 2,000+ years ago, Jesus stated the Golden Rule: “whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12). Basically, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or, in this specific context: “if you don’t like people saying things that offend you, then don’t say things that offend others.“
When thinking about this version of the rule (“If you don’t like other people saying things that you find offensive; don’t say things they find offensive”), it must be framed in terms of the emotions of the person who is affected: it’s not honest to say “well, I don’t mind being called a ‘girl’, so it’s totally cool if I call other people ‘girls’.” (I chose ‘girl’ as term that is offensive to some people—e.g., many boys and men; many adult women—but not offensive to others—e.g., many little girls, some adult women.) Saying that things are only offensive if they offend you is true from a grossly egocentric point of view: if you’re only concerned with whether or not you’re offended, then you miss the fact that someone else might be offended. You may not care if someone calls you a ‘girl’, but that doesn’t mean that the term isn’t offensive to others. Context and perspective matter.
Applying the Golden Rule propounded by Jesus requires understanding what others want, not just applying your own standards to everyone. You may love to eat pork, but the Golden Rule doesn’t therefore suggest that you force everybody else to eat pork. If you love to eat pork then the Golden Rule should lead you to try to provide others with things that they love to eat.
The principle known as the Golden Rule is echoed across many religions. In Hinduism: “One should not behave towards others in a way that is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish nature” Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8). And in Judaism: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18). Buddhism, Islam, and others also have scripture that extols these same values (https://www.feedkindness.com/resources/mindful-religion-coexistence/; https://inspiremetoday.com/blog/kindness-the-core-of-12-religions/).
The place to start, according to this basic principle, is not with arguing whether someone has a right to be offended, but with whether they are offended. By this standard, Kelly’s argument that at a certain place in time people were not offended, therefore no one should be offended is clearly flawed because it is essentially egocentric: “The people from whom I take my standard are not offended, and therefore other people shouldn’t be offended.” The idea that you treat others with respect means that you take them and their concerns as seriously as you take yourself and your interests; it doesn’t mean you dismiss their concerns because they don’t seem important to you.
Society depends on people treating each other with respect and care. Large social groups depend on the willingness of their members to make decisions for the good of the whole group, and to show a willingness to make sacrifices for the good of the whole group. This need for a social awareness and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good does not preclude competition; it does not preclude seizing personal opportunities or having success beyond the common person; it does not preclude capitalism or personal liberty. It does, however, call on people to be willing to give up some things to help other members of their society, and thus their society as a whole. Sometimes these sacrifices are large: many have given their lives for their nation or their community. Sometimes the sacrifices are rather smaller: giving up that blackface costume is a pretty small sacrifice; giving up callous insults also seems like a pretty small sacrifice.
To Kelly and others who would argue, “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” let me suggest that if by being “normal” you offend people, you might try to be better than normal. The principles espoused by religions—the Golden Rule and its relatives—are rules to which people should aspire, they are not descriptions of normal behavior. If being normal means callously offending people, I, personally, don’t want to be normal. I want to be better. That’s what it means to live up to ethical standards. The people who follow ethical standards consistently are rightly held up as exemplars; the fact that “normal” people don’t live up to that standard is a poor excuse for not trying to do better.
There are times when other concerns override the interest in being considerate to others, and there are times when people are offended without good reason, but those are outside the scope of this post, which is already overly long.