Recently, I offended someone.
This is, shockingly enough, not a new experience for me, but it got me thinking: what do we mean when we talk about giving (or taking) offense? In thrashing it out with Joel (who, incidentally, is one of the best conversationalists I know, and if you aren't fortunate enough to know them in meat-life you should at least be reading their blog), I realized that there are really two rather different things conflated in the term “offended”.
On the one hand, I am easily offended – by the perpetuation, deliberate or unthinking, of the assorted kyriarchal -isms that comprise the dominant culture where I live.
On the other hand, I am almost impossible to offend – by personal insults, viciously sarcastic banter, slurs on my taste in entertainment, and the like.
See the difference? In the first case, my being offended is not actually the point. The point is that systemic injustice is being perpetuated; my taking offense is merely a manifestation of outrage at injustice, which is the real Bad Thing. The second case, however, turns on personal sensitivity: the Bad Thing here is my hurt feelings.
Collapsing all distinction between these two modes of being offended is problematic. It's what I did as an asshole young teen awash in unexamined privilege, dismissing all instances of people being offended as the hurt fee-fees of oversensitive whiners.
But completely separating the two modes of offense isn't too great either, and I think that's what I've been doing more recently. In my zeal to fight the power, I've been separating offendedness into wheat and tares: being offended at -isms is legitimate and righteous, but personal sensitivity constitutes an illegitimate form of offendedness. Of course, on a very basic level this separation makes no sense at all, because -isms hurt people. The two forms of offendedness are not identical, but they are intertwined.
At a formative age, I learned the hard way to not have hurt feelings. If you let your hurt feelings show, you gave the people trying to hurt you the satisfaction of a job well done, and encouraged them to keep at it. Better to repress those feelings. Better to hide in the library, fade into the background, turn invisible. Better to try not to have feelings at all, and if you must have them, have them in the novels you read, the diaries and poems and stories you write, the secret world in your head to which you retreat in every idle moment.
I was a child with a tenuous grasp on theory of mind as it was, so “hurt feelings are a weakness and a failing” was not the most helpful lesson for my preteen self to learn. As much as I've tried since then to unlearn everything I absorbed from the kids who made my life so hellish for that couple of years, those things are an insidious part of who I am. (I am worthless. Nobody could ever like me. Showing hurt feelings means they've won.) My brain knows that hurt feelings are a perfectly legitimate reaction to insults and sarcasm, but my gut still dismisses them as weakness, oversensitivity, invalid.
I am, my many past and present failures in this field notwithstanding, getting pretty practiced at battling the kyriarchy. Even though I don't always combat them when and how I should, I have at least gotten quite sensitive to the pervasive presence of -isms all around me.
But I am still not at all sensitive to individuals' hurt feelings. Many times, my personal insensitivity has caused offense, and sometimes I haven't even understood how. What I've realized from this latest incident is that I am drawing an artificial dualism that cannot be maintained. Systemic injustice can cause hurt feelings. Personal insensitivity can cause hurt feelings. Most of the time, it's kind of both.
I will never, I think, be a very sensitive person. I'm too callused by my childhood experiences to be hurt by a bit of mockery or rudeness; but I will fight my tendency to assume that everyone else is too. I will bear in mind that what looks to me like personal sensitivity might well be influenced by a systemic injustice that my privilege has blocked from my view. I will remind myself that, even though a certain joke or comment wouldn't be hurtful me, it might well hurt somebody else, and that doesn't mean that person is oversensitive or somehow in the wrong for feeling that way.
I will learn. I will get better at this.