When offence is not taken, it is assigned

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

I am often told that ‘offence is not given, it’s taken’, as if offence can only ever matter to the people who feel it. Like it’s a substance magicked out of thin air whenever someone is being thin-skinned. The ‘offence is not given, it’s taken’ argument is usually rolled out when someone is trying to make the person who is criticising them look petty or dramatic. But in my experience offence is rarely taken: it is assigned.

What do we mean by ‘offence’?

Let me paraphrase a conversation I have quite often, and will likely have even more in the run-up to the general election:

Them: X

Me: I think X is wrong. [for ‘wrong’ read maybe ‘sexist‘ or ‘inconsiderate’ or ‘cruel’ or similar]

Them: Oh, have I offended you?

‘Have I offended you?’ is usually meant sarcastically: like ‘oh no! I have offended you! What horror! Your poor sad feelings might have been hurt! Well, guess what, fuckface?! I don’t care about your feelings! The TRUTH is more important!’

“Are you offended?”

What exactly does this question mean? How does one measure ‘offence’, and separate it from other feelings someone might have? Is ‘offence’ different to anger, sadness, or disgust?

If I just say ‘that’s sexist’, I’m effectively making a statement of fact. You can agree or disagree about the fact, of course, but what extra properties does the statement have if I add ‘that’s sexist and also offensive‘? It feels at best irrelevant and at worst tautologous. If the original statement is sexist, it is also bad. Therefore you’d expect it to create a certain kind of bad feeling in any decent person – whether that’s offence, upset, frustration, or whatever.

Look at this another way: could someone point out cruelty, rudeness, sexism, or anything along those lines without also implying that the thing is bad? If something is cruel, rude, or sexist, most of us accept that means it is Not Good. It is an inherently offensive (or perhaps a better term is just ‘bad’ or ‘undesirable’) thing. It would be unusual and surprising for your average person to say ‘that is sexist’, and mean it in a positive way.

“That is offensive”

So. When someone says ‘that is offensive’ – that thing you do, or that statement you made – they aren’t usually saying ‘this thing is bad because it makes me feel upset/offended.‘ They’re not addressing your action purely because of the impact on them, but the impact on you. They’re saying: ‘doing/saying this makes you look like a bit of a prick.’

If you say ‘GOTN, that blog post you wrote is offensive,’ it’s unlikely that you’re telling me I shouldn’t write that post simply because it hurts your feelings. You’re saying ‘this post you wrote is sexist/rude/ill-considered etc’ and the unspoken half of the equation is ‘you shouldn’t be sexist/rude/ill-considered because it makes you look like a prick.’

When our original offensive commenter said “your precious FEELINGS don’t matter!” they were technically right. No, feelings aren’t the problem: they are just the barometer by which we can work out what the problem is. Saying ‘that’s pretty offensive’ is in many cases a gentle shorthand for ‘you’re being a prick.’ It is a nudge in a certain direction – away from something this person thinks is mean, and towards a path that they think is a better one.

This is why I use the word ‘offensive’ sometimes when I am chatting to older relatives. If they say things which are old-school sexist, I am unlikely to just stand up and say “NO GRANDAD, YOU ARE A SEXIST. WHAT A HORRIBLE ARSE YOU ARE.” Instead, I’d go for “that sounds offensive, Grandad, because it’s implying this.”

Most of the time when I use the word ‘offence’ or ‘offensive’, I am not trying to imply – as the ‘are you offended’ commenters believe – that you should go to great pains to avoid offending me personally, because my feelings are paramount. I’m instead using it as a gentle nudge. It is a nicer thing to say than what I am actually thinking which is: ‘saying/doing this makes you look like a bit of a prick.’

Assigning offence

Given this, when someone says to me, sarcastically, ‘oh, I’m sorry. Are you offended?’ The question – far from shaming me into shutting up about my precious feelings – looks to me like quite an embarrassing thing for the person asking.

Them: Says sexist thing.

Me: That’s quite sexist. (translation: you look like a bit of a prick, but I am trying to be polite so I’m not going to say that directly)

Them: Oh, sorry. Are you offended by my looking like a bit of a prick? Boo hoo, poor you! Your poor feelings!

Me: Ummm OK.

The actual answer to the question ‘are you offended?’ in my case is likely ‘no.’ Sometimes I am upset (if someone is personally hurtful). Sometimes I am surprised (if they are someone I otherwise respect). Sometimes I am angry (if I think the harm from what they’ve done/said is going to spread more widely and/or do lasting damage). But offended? Rarely. As above, I’m not entirely sure what ‘being offended’ means, other than ‘I think this thing you have done is bad and I am going to say so.’

So when someone assigns offence to me, I’m usually faintly embarrassed on their behalf. As if I’ve told someone they have mustard on their face, and they have responded by shouting ‘OH, are you OFFENDED by MY MUSTARDY FACE?’ and then squirting loads more mustard onto their face to fight back against my oppressive censorship of their face-mustard.

My friend, I am not offended by mustard. It’s just that in my culture/home/friendship group, generally people prefer not to have a dollop of it on their chin. It is a thing they usually try to stay on top of.

I haven’t desperately tried to claw offence out of a situation in order to make you feel bad: I’ve highlighted a thing that I think makes you look like a prick, and you’ve assigned offence to me to try and make yourself feel better.

Do you care if I think you’re a prick?

Of course you might disagree with me on the issue of whether what you’ve said is bad/sexist/rude/whatever. In your friendship group/culture/home it might be considered not just acceptable but important to have mustard on one’s face at all times. You might think that just by saying this I sound like a smug, self-satisfied twat (and you’ve a point – re-reading this I think I do). You might think I’m entirely wrong on the whole premise. Again, fair enough. But I just wanted to write this down somewhere because I have the ‘are you offended?’ discussion a fair bit on Twitter, and I wanted to explain why it feels so weird to me. By assigning ‘offence’, people imply that I’ve demanded they never say stuff that will upset me.

But I don’t think that’s what it is. Offence isn’t a rule you must abide by purely because of my individual feelings. It is just my way of saying ‘if you think/say/do this, I will think you are a bit of a prick.’

If you’re an obviously heinous prick – if you show up in my timeline with a frog emoji and a bucketful of hate, I will likely not respond to your shitbag comments at all. I’ll just mute you and move on. If I actually respond and say ‘I don’t agree’ or ‘that’s not cool’ then chances are I’m doing so because I have at least a bit of respect for you.

I think you’ve got mustard on your face, and I figure you’d like to know.


  • Azkyroth says:

    You don’t happen to republish articles where they aren’t surrounded by NSFW advertising, do you? I know a few people who need to be clubbed over the head with this, but where that would likely be an issue. x.x

    • Girl on the net says:

      What do you count as NSFW? I have rules (ish) on keeping ads relatively safe – like no nudity etc, but if I go too subtle then the companies who advertise will feel a bit too limited if that makes sense. Feel free to copy/paste into an email if you like though! I know I’m not technically meant to say that but yeah =)

  • Odysseus Rex says:

    I’m afraid you’re considering these exchanges as debates when your interlocutors aren’t.

    “When [Person X] says ‘that is offensive’ – that thing you do, or that statement you made – they aren’t usually saying ‘this thing is bad because it makes me feel upset/offended.‘ ”

    Maybe not. But that’s exactly what the other person is alleging: that when X says something is sexist, X is not “effectively making a statement of fact” but rather, that X’s offence has led X to reach for the label ‘sexist’ which comes under this other person’s category of ‘knee-jerk insults which have no factual basis I might recognise’. So they don’t see that X might be factually right and they might be wrong, they just see a non-factual insult because ‘X can’t handle the truth’.

    If they deny/don’t care about the sexism, then X using the euphemism ‘offensive’ to suggest the other person indulge in a spot of self-reflection isn’t going to help.

    It’s a pessimistic conclusion, but you’ve got to either lay it out why they’re being a prick, or ignore them.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hmm, interesting point and I think that’s true for the twattiest of people (i.e. people who don’t recognise that sexism or racism or etc are actual ‘things’), however I think most people would accept that sexism exists, they would just deny that they are sexist themselves.

  • Sweetgirl says:

    I personally think many people use the word offensive or its derivatives too casually.

    Racism, sexism and discrimination in any form is offensive either in rhetoric or action, but mostly I see it used to belittle and shame people for sharing experiences and thoughts in their own words.

    Talking about abuse for example, while the act is offensive telling someone they can’t talk about it because its offensive actually shames the victim into keeping quiet. That in my opinion is something that should never happen. Every victim has the right to speak however they can, telling them its offensive in some ways affirms what their abuser told them…. that no-one will listen.


    • Girl on the net says:

      Hmm yeah that’s interesting. To be honest I have not had anyone use ‘offensive’ for the things you’ve described so it’s hard for me to work out what the context might be here. What sort of things are they calling ‘offensive’ and what is the underlying reason for that? i.e. if someone is talking about their experiences of abuse, the only time I could see where someone might legitimately say ‘that’s offensive’ is if the discussion were somehow perpetuating further harm (i.e. traumatising people by using shock, etc), and in this case I’d guess ‘offensive’ is actually a shortcut for alerting people to the harm they may be causing to those who struggle with PTSD from abuse of their own. That’s the only legit reason I can think of though. Do you have any examples here?

      I know lots of people will say that sex-related content generally is ‘offensive’ and in these situations I think usually what they mean is ‘talking about sex/doing THIS kind of sex is morally bad/harmful’ and while I totally get why some people might think that, I disagree and therefore being told I am ‘offensive’ from that perspective is nonsensical to me. So I guess that kind of stuff would fall into the last category I’m talking about in the post, where one can effectively say ‘I’m just going to shrug this off because our values clearly don’t align.’ But yeah, I’ve talked about abuse/harassment in the past and while I’ve certainly had people criticise me for the ways I have presented it, usually it’s men who think I’m generalising, I’ve never had anyone say ‘talking about abuse is offensive, full stop’ so if you have an example you’re comfortable sharing I might be able to get my head around it a little more easily.

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