Sometimes there is a need for insults. Insults make people laugh. They challenge ideas, and they are the first line of defense. However, there is a line: a blurry line that depends on context, but a line, nonetheless. This is the line between kindness and cruelty, righteousness and attack, and “gratuitous offense” and insult. This line is called decency.
Kindness is the best path to what you want; it wins people over and changes minds. The Economist advises writers, “Avoid, if you can, giving gratuitous offence; you risk losing your readers, or at least their goodwill, and therefore your arguments.” Using gratuitous offense always crosses the line, but insults are in more of a gray area. Insults do not always clash with kindness. The Economist article continues, “Some people believe the possibility of giving offence . . . to be more important than stating the truth, never mind the chance of doing so with any verve or panache. They are wrong. . . .You may be neither Galileo nor Salman Rushdie, but you too may sometimes be right to cause offence. Your first duty is to the truth.” The ad hominem attack is not effective; offending people just turns them away. On the other hand, exposing people to offensive ideas, ideas that they don’t agree with, makes people think. It makes people search for the truth.
Sometimes, offense becomes cruelty. Despite the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” words cause pain. We now know that words can build up like straws on a camel’s back, and on occasion, people commit suicide. Obviously, there is a significant step from offense to suicide. Each straw is placed injury by injury. Imagine that the words “fuck you” were a punch. Someone could use this punch to attack, to give playful arm punch, to be flirty, or as self defense. However, you shouldn’t playfully punch someone you don’t know; what if they have a bruise that you can’t see? Similarly, you shouldn’t toss around the word “retarded”; what if the listener is mentally disabled, or has a sibling who is mentally disabled? People can be “bruised” by PTSD, by being a minority, by being discriminated against, or by just being a teenager. Throwing wild punches will result in hitting someone’s bruise.
Similar to physical pain, people don’t “want” or “decide” to be hurt by something. For example, my brother is gay. I love him dearly, and it hurts when I hear “faggot” or “that’s so gay” in the hallway. Maybe you could find a reason why “that’s so gay” shouldn’t hurt me. I’m sure there’s a whole logic chain that could demonstrate “that’s so gay” has taken an alternate meaning in our language today and has no relevance to homophobia. I don’t care. It hurts anyway. My whole body revulses, and for hours afterward, the words echo in my head. I don’t “want” or “decide” to take offense, to be hurt, or to feel pain.
All rationalization is useless if you take a step back. It doesn’t matter if people should commit suicide over “offensive” words. It matters if they do. If someone is already bruised by PTSD, jokes about their condition would hurt. Those emotions wouldn’t be “illegitimate.” There is no such thing as an “illegitimate emotion.” It always annoys me when people say, “No offense, but . . .” because whatever follows is still offensive.
It’s easy to navigate “the line” with words that have a well-documented effect, such as “fuck you.” The issue of political correctness is a bit different; what happens when you have no idea if a word is offensive? One way to find out is to run an experiment: does this hurt someone? Poke them. Use the word. Use all the words! If someone says “ow,” ask them about it. Listen. Don’t use that word again until you are certain that it is appropriate for your audience and purpose. Is your goal to defend your own world view, or to expand others’? You need to understand how and why people are being hurt by that word, although true empathy only comes with personal involvement in the issue. Of course, it’s better if you don’t go around poking people. That’s where awareness comes in. Spread the word!
Sometimes, navigating political correctness is like dancing through a field of nails. I get it. I don’t know every word that could offend someone. Attacking conservatives is not the answer. An attack inevitably elicits a reaction of either silence, or anger. Neither is beneficial.
A 1990 New York Times article called “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct” refers to political correctness as “Stalinist orthodoxy” and “liberal fascism” with “a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia.” In other words, if you step over the line, you will be shot down. Start talking and listening instead; develop the “deeper idea of civil discourse.” Unwelcome beliefs shouldn’t be suppressed. A lack of disagreement creates the much-discussed “bubble,” which “does not allow for sufficient complexity in scholarship or even much clarity in thinking.” We need to hear all the voices if we are to find the truth. Political correctness is also associated with “a stubborn lack of a sense of humor.” Funny is okay. Nonconforming is okay. Harmful is not. Once again, there’s our favorite fuzzy line.
This issue will define our times. “Gratuitous offense” will stand beside Trump in the history books. Listen up. Stand up. And then speak.