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Why being offensive is good
This may come as a bit of a surprise to readers of this Substack, but most of the time I’m agreeable to a fault. In today’s world that’s a useful thing because people loooove to get offended at the slightest thing. Some people even get offended when you apologize.
That’s right, dare to offend someone’s fickle feelings? Blasphemy. You don’t even have to try very hard. They’d build jails for serial offenders if they could (see what I did there? No? Sorry).
Of course, there’s a fundamental difference between trying to offend on purpose, or just sharing a thought and offending by accident. But good luck trying to figure out just which of your thoughts will land wrong. Many have tried, many have failed.
But there’s value in offending on purpose too—specifically in art. After all, it’s a great way to provoke an intense reaction.
Being offensive lets you challenge people’s beliefs and opinions—and gets people to listen. When done skillfully, it allows others to look at something from a different perspective. It gets a whole lot of attention, too. Look at, Borat or South Park, for example. Pretty offensive to some, no? But there’s a point to it.
Whenever you speak the truth of what you believe or stand up for your values, when they don’t align with someone else’s, you risk offending. That’s just the cost of doing business.
“Those who are determined to be ‘offended’ will discover a provocation somewhere. We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.”
― Christopher Hitchens
I find that the ‘best’ kind of offensive is the sort used by comedians to make people laugh. It’s a way to address the seemingly unaddressable. The elephant in the room. Or on the table. Or on the toilet seat. Wherever you find pink elephants.
Increasingly though, there’s pressure for comedians to amuse and entertain—not to be offensive. Many say that they are forced to self-censor or they risk not getting booked. That’s a rather stifling situation. No wonder they drink so much! I’ve set through many comedy shows that have…offended me. Some, not remotely funny. I should note—not funny TO ME. Some people laughed. Again, maybe it was the alcohol. But, maybe they found it funny. That’s the thing—comedy is in the eye of the beholder. So is offense.
And even if the entire room is offended, so what? Maybe that’s the point? Or maybe the comedian will go back and rewrite their joke so that it’s better.
Some years ago, I had a horrible rape joke told at my expense at a show at the Comedy Store in LA. It involved my corpse. I did not think there was a way to make a rape joke funny. Then, on her podcast with me, as I retelling that verbal ‘trauma,’ Bridget Phetasy made a rape joke that was both funny and poignant—and perhaps even a little offensive. So, I was corrected. (Though, that whole routine at the Comedy Store was still pretty repugnant, devoid of humor, and targeted a single person—me).
I don’t think that to offend should be the whole goal (and that’s rarely particularly entertaining to an audience), but it can be a useful tool to point out the lunacy of life, politics, stereotypes, hypocrisy, society, beliefs, and so on.
And let’s not forget that there was a time when the government was so concerned about how offensive some words might be that they put people like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce in prison just for saying the wrong ones. In 1972, Carlin was arrested for saying the ‘seven deadly words’ not allowed to air on television. Bruce, of course, was a jail cell regular. And for what? Words. ‘Offensive’ words.
It’s okay to be offensive. It’s even okay to be offended—though it is a choice. The alternative would be walking on eggshells. And that’s just not very fun without socks on.
What do you think? Is being offensive a tool or is it bad for discourse? Are people more easily offended these days or has this always been the case? Leave a comment.
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Who am I? I’m a writer with an overactive imagination and a random mind. Outside of Substack, you’ll find my work in publications such as Newsweek, WIRED, Variety, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Esquire, Playboy, Mashable, CNN Travel, The Independent, and many others.
Here, you can expect to see little essays on topics ranging from self-censorship, how to have better conversations and word misappropriation to whimsical thoughts about losing imaginary friends and insomnia. Anything goes. Here, there’s no “left,” “right,” or even “middle”. Just random thoughts. And everyone’s welcome to be part of the conversation—in fact, it’s encouraged.