‘Offended’ Is A Straw Man — Stop Using It As An Argument
“Offended” is the current favorite buzzword, it seems, for virtually every piece of legislation passed, every word or behavior that becomes socially unacceptable, and every action that you’re asked not to do. It becomes an excuse: “They’re taking down the Confederate flag because they’re offended! Well, I’mm offended by the rainbow flag so take it down too!” Unfortunately, too many people don’t seem to realize this argument is a strawman. Laws aren’t passed because anyone is offended — that’s a completely inaccurate interpretation.
First, you may be wondering what a strawman is. Essentially, it means an argument the other person isn’t actually making. If you say that you don’t want to travel out of town because you’ve got a lot of work to do, and your friend says “Gas prices are down, it’s not going to cost you that much,” your friend has used a strawman — you were not using gas prices as an argument.
So, how is offense a strawman? Let’s look at a few recent cases.
The Confederate flag is, of course, a current favorite of everyone. The South Carolina legislators have decided to remove it, and everyone has an opinion.
“They’re taking it down because a few people are offended, but most people want it!”
“I’m offended by sagging pants, ban those too!” (Note: this is a dual strawman, since the flag is not being banned at all.)
“I’m offended by the rainbow flag, take that down too!” (Also a double strawman, since the South Carolina State House is not currently flying an LGBT Pride flag.)
Why is offended a strawman in this case?
The flag isn’t being removed due to offense. It’s being removed for a few reasons, chief among them that a government building should never have been flying the flag of a defeated act of treason to begin with. (No, it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t the official flag of the Confederacy.) It’s also being removed because its direct association with racism, a hate group, and a recent mass murder isn’t something the government should appear to support. (Yes, it’s still a symbol of those things if they aren’t what it means to you and your friends.)
This isn’t people being offended (though people certainly are), it’s a body of government making a decision not to support a symbol of a very dark time in the nation’s history.
Despite what your favorite conservative blog told you, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa were not slapped with a fine for ‘offending’ a lesbian couple. Discrimination is certainly offensive, but it’s not illegal because it’s offensive. It’s illegal because because the U.S. holds equality as one of its great values, and because in the specific state where this happened, sexuality is a protected class, which means that public businesses cannot discriminate based on it.
Again: this couple did not sue because they were ‘offended’ but because they faced discrimination, and the ruling was not because they were offended, but because of the violation of law. The fine, in fact, according to Snopes, was not because of offended sensibilities, but because of the harassment the couple faced — after the bakery owners published their home address on Facebook.
Religious Monuments on Government Property
You may have heard that the ACLU successfully sued to have the Ten Commandments monument removed from Oklahoma Capitol grounds, or that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is battling to have the Jesus staue on U.S. Forestry Service property in Montana taken down.
This is commonly interpreted as, “People are so offended by displays of love for Christ!”
Well, of course, there are probably some individuals who are offended by Christian symbols, because you can find someone offended by virtually anything. This isn’t about them. These monuments are not being removed because people are offended. They’re being removed because they are a violation of the First Amendment. The First Amendment says that Congress won’t make any laws about the free exercise of religion. However, courts have long interpreted it to mean that the government cannot establish an official religion. (Not having an official state religion, you may recall from history classes, is one of the reasons some of our ancestors came here to begin with.)
Furthermore, courts interpret the Constitution to mean that government also cannot show preference for one religion — such as by allowing one religious group to set up monuments on government property while denying the same privilege to other groups. This isn’t a rule put in place because people are offended by crosses and monuments — it’s a rule put in place because the government shouldn’t be hinting to the public that Christians (or any other single group) are the ‘preferred’ citizens and that othe religious or non-religious groups have less value in America.
Here again, this isn’t about being ‘offended’ by the Ten Commandments or a statue of a white guy that soeone thinks looks like Jesus. It’s about American government doing the thing it is supposed to do, by treating all citizens fairly and equally.
Lots of things are offensive (to some or many), but legal, like picking your nose in public. Some things are illegal, but not generally considered offensive, like speeding or failing to report all income on your taxes.
Some things, however, are both illegal and offensive, and in those cases, it needs to be clear: these items are being removed not for offense, but for compliance with law, to keep in line with our nation’s purported dedication to equality. Similarly, sometimes decisions are made about objects that are not necessarily illegal, but are offensive to some or many, and again, this does not mean that the decision is because someone was ‘offended’ even if people were — the decision is likely due to marketing matters (like TV Land pulling The Dukes Of Hazzard) or to political matters, or simply due to recognizing that a symbol has stayed up past its expiration date.
Nobody has the right not to be offended — but sometimes things that are offensive are also things that must be stopped. It’s not because someone was offended, but because it’s right.