Dear Charlie

By Molly Hoyer '18

Content warning: slurs

Dear Charlie,

Recently, you posted this image on Facebook:

It says, “Being offended: Claiming that you are offended is essentially saying that you are incapable of controlling and managing your own emotions and so everybody else should do it for you,” accompanied by a picture of Benedict Cumberbatch making a face and pointing upward at the text, captioned with the word “THIS.”




For some reason, the picture kind of bothered me. Something didn’t feel right. I decided to investigate further by looking at the comments, where your friend Amber brought up a good point: “Yea not really though. When I tell someone I’m offended it’s giving them a chance to rethink their ignorance.” A debate ensued in the comments section, and I’ll quote one more point that I’d like to address, from someone named Andy:

“Insults are meaningless unless they contain some truth Amber. If you call a thin person a fat slob would they more likely be offended, or laugh? In the movie Roadhouse there is a scene where Patrick Swayze is telling his bouncers to be nice to unruly customers no matter what, and one bouncer asks ‘What if someone calls my mother a whore?’ Swayze responded by asking ‘Is she?’ The only way to stand up for kindness and compassion is to BE kind and compassionate. You cannot control what other people say.”

I’ll address this comment, essentially the basis for your post, starting with the last sentence.

When my older sister was in elementary school, she was bullied aggressively. Whenever I think about this point in our lives, what comes to mind first is my mom and grandma’s refrain: “You can’t change what people do, you can only change your reaction to them.” As a child, this was my mantra. Frankly, it wasn’t a bad one for a white, middle-class child who needed to learn to adapt and listen to what people said, and then respond appropriately. But when I discovered the need to speak up for myself, around middle school, I decided it was total and complete bullshit. Why couldn’t my sister stop a girl from kicking and punching her and taking her lunch money? Why didn’t anybody do something? As I grew up, I saw the situation that my mom and grandma were in more clearly: they had tried to get somebody like a teacher or administrator to do something, but received no response from anyone in a position of authority. Nobody ever reprimanded or disciplined the other girl for what she did to my sister. Not once. Since we are, as you said, Andy, a kind and compassionate family, we tried to support my sister and comfort her by telling her that she couldn’t change what her bully did, she could only change how she reacted to the bullying. Which was true: as an eight-year-old victim of bullying, she herself was not in a position to do anything more about it.

The problem arises when we then think there is nothing to be done, which is simply untrue. Just because my sister could not do anything about it does not mean there was nothing to be done. People in a position of authority had the power—and the duty—to effect positive change in my sister’s situation. When you see all these people posting about something that offends them on your timeline, seemingly incapable of controlling their emotions, they are using the power of visibility that Facebook gives them to try to effect positive change.

But why are they offended in the first place? So many insults hurt and offend because they are based in insulting an aspect of a person’s identity; words like f*g, sl*t, the n-word, r*tard, fat slob, etc. are bigoted language.

Maybe in hypothetical situations like the ones Andy brought up, those insults can be shaken off pretty easily. But look into them a little further. Let’s say a guy in the high school locker room calls two boys a f*g, each on separate days. One is straight and has no doubts about his sexuality. He doesn’t care—he knows the bully is just upset about something and wants to call him a name. He doesn’t give it a thought and moves on with his life. Two days later, the bully calls the second boy, who is gay and out at school, a f*g. This boy is hurt by this, and he is also offended, which is different. Why? Because he knows that the word f*g is derogatory specifically towards LGBTQ+ people, mainly gay men. It is meant to make people with a specific identity feel bad about themselves, and then appropriated to make anyone feel bad about themselves, whether they belong to a marginalized group or not. And that intent is what offends him, and me.

You have the right to say it, of course. Just like I have the right to call you out on it and tell you why it is hurtful and destructive. When I say I am offended, I am not just saying you hurt my feelings. I am calling you out on your complicity in a system of oppression, such as racism or fat-shaming or sexism. A real life example: when Leslie Jones had to leave Twitter because she was being subjected to racist and sexist slurs. Of course I’m sure her feelings were hurt, but she was also offended, as many of us were on her part. Why? Because so many of those insults were based on the fact that she is a black woman. Comedians have to deal with critics of their comedy all the time; they get over it and move on, as you regularly suggest that they should. But to be insulted for an aspect of your identity that has been historically oppressed, that’s different. And your language, claiming that she is “incapable of controlling her emotions” and has “trouble minding her own business,” is the language of oppression that has been used for hundreds of years to silence people who are fighting for their right to exist as they are. We keep shifting the blame for our complicity in a system of oppression onto the victims, when we need to take responsibility for our own prejudice.

Luckily for you, there is no insult for cisgender, white, thin*, able-bodied, heterosexual men that is prejudiced against your identity, because there has never been any systemic, long-term oppression of cis hetero thin able-bodied white men. Congratulations. So in the future, please remember that while your cis white thin able-bodied hetero male privilege tends to shield you from the effect of bigoted language, you make up only one part of the population, and there are so many people who are targeted by this language every day. And maybe, instead of being annoyed by their use of Facebook to try and effect positive change, listen to what they are saying and think about how your silence and lack of offense makes you complicit in their oppression. About how maybe, you are the administrator who stayed silent while Katie was being bullied.

Love always,

*thin meaning physically fit according to societal standards

From November 2016 Issue