The right to be offended

I’m only 26 years old, so I don’t really remember much about Paul Keating as PM.  However, from my memory, he became unpopular in part because he was perceived to be excessively politically correct. Since that point, I’ve always had some kind of awareness that political correctness is apparently bad, and that people should be able to say what they think without fear of offending some precious, arrogant ass (thanks to @dbydnevs for that term).

In the last two weeks, a couple of things have made me think about this whole debate again. One was the controversy about Stephanie Rice using the term “faggot” in a tweet, culminating in Rice offering a public apology. This promptly led to a debate between those who were offended, and those who thought that the people who were were offended were being too sensitive. One example that springs to mind is the response of the lovely @sunlightandsnow to this post on mumbrella, basically saying that just because you’re gen Y and you aren’t offended doesn’t mean that no-one from gen Y is offended (apologies to @sunlightandsnow if I’ve misrepresented your view).

Normally I would have accepted such debate as part of the usual vibrant discussion that contact with people on the internet brings and quickly moved on, but this time the debate about what is offensive stuck in my mind. The reason it stuck with me was the debate over the hashtag #feelthemupfriday. The hashtag was used by people participating in a spontanenous campaign started by @carolduncan and one or two others to get people to turn their twitter avatars pink to encourage women to check their breasts and raise breast cancer awareness.

The reason there was debate over the hashtag is that some people were offended by the use of the term feel them up, while others thought it was perfectly reasonable and that those who were offended were being a little too PC.  I’m reluctant to wade too deeply into this debate, because, well, people have already had their say, and it’s pretty clear to me that passions are running high on both sides. If you’d like to get some background, here are a few blog posts discussing the issue.

I’m just going to say here I think raising awareness is a great thing to do, and I am certainly pleased to hear that several women are now getting breast checks as a result. I respect the people who participated, and I know that they had nothing but good intentions in mind. What I have to say in the rest of this post is not meant as an attack on the people behind #feelthemupFriday, or even really the hashtag itself, but the debate surrounding #feelthemupFriday is context for something I have been feeling for a while.

Essentially, #feelthemupFriday did not sit well with me. I couldn’t quite place my finger on why, because I thought that encouraging people to examine their breasts was a great idea, but I also just felt a little uneasy for some unknown reason. I then came across this post by @ellymc, which led to one of those “ah-hah” moments of realisation. Although it doesn’t completely describe my own feelings, I could really understand where @ellymc was coming from. My strongest emotional reaction, however, was to some of the tweets where people were deriding her attitude as being too PC and accusing her of being oversensitive (to be fair, many others involved with #feelthemupFriday defended her or at least respected her opinion and agreed to disagree).

In general, I don’t think people choose to be offended, so I don’t think it is fair to attack them for it. I’m a female working in a male-dominated environment, and generally the people I work with are lovely and completely respectful. However, there are a small minority of my colleagues who aren’t, and after five years I have become worn down from trying to ignore the sexist comments I am periodically exposed to. I’m also worn out from the feeling I have to work twice as hard as my male colleagues to earn respect.  As an example: I needed a (fairly quick) fix to a piece of my experimental equipment before I could continue my lab work. A member of the workshop staff interrupted his job to fix it for me, so I went to thank him. As I was thanking him (he’s one of my lovely colleagues), another member of staff stood by, putting on a high pitched voice and repeating what I had to say in a mocking tone. At the time it made me feel a bit crap, but I tried to ignore it because, hey, I had experiments to do.

Several months later, I was helping unpack heavy boxes of equipment after a refurbishment of the labs. One of the guys involved with the refurbishment pushed a couple of the boxes along the corridor. Since these boxes were pretty heavy, I just make a relaxed, offhand mark, something like “Dude! I can barely move one of those boxes.” At this point, the same member of staff who had previously mocked me adopted the same mocking, high-pitched tone and started saying things like “Ooh, you’re sooo strong.” I made a brief retort along the lines of “It wasn’t like that”, but I then had to escape to my office to cry. I felt like complete rubbish, and even though I knew this guy was a sexist dickhead, he had managed to reduce my feeling of self-worth to zero. Luckily I have a good group of friends who told me his behaviour was completely inappropriate and that I am a woman who possesses good qualities other than my breasts.

Ever since that day, I’ve been a lot more sensitive to sexist comments, even those that other women shrug their shoulders about, saying they’re not bothered at all. I’m not bothered when women say they’re not offended: just because something doesn’t bother them doesn’t mean I am going to start a campaign where I demand that they be offended too and that they cease being relaxed (I often wish I could return to being so relaxed myself). That said, I would like others to extend the courtesy to me – respecting that my own personal history may have sensitized me to certain things, that I can’t help my emotional response, and that I am entitled to state why I feel uneasy.

In short (if you can’t be bothered with my rambling): we all have different histories and consequently different responses to the same event. You’re entitled to not be offended by something, but usually when people are offended by something they can’t help it and they are entitled to say why. It’s not necessarily a case of excessive political correctness.

(As a final aside, apologies for the rambliness and the length of my post. I haven’t written a blog post in a couple of years so I am out of practice).

Edit: One final thing: I’m not having a go at @carolduncan here: she is a lovely woman and I know that she did understand why people react differently.

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3 Responses to The right to be offended

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The right to be offended | Misc and Other -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: What feminism means to me | Misc and Other

  3. Pingback: The choices of women | Misc and Other

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