Giving Offense v. Causing Harm, In Art and Everywhere Else

Novelist Chuck Wendig wrote a post on the difference between being offensive and being mean last week that I think is worth reading in its entirety, but I wanted to pull out this section of it:

I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s the thing. Offending people? Happy to do it…But I don’t want to be mean. Or cruel. Or conjure up words that ding a person’s armor. I care little about minimizing offense, but I care quite a lot about minimizing people.

That’s why I don’t think the Tomb Raider thing is about political correctness — because I think it’s about minimizing women and, in a way, minimizing the men who play those games. That’s also why I don’t think that profane “in-your-face” blog posts that use words like the ones I noted are in what you might call “terribleminds-style” — sure, I’ll mock things within the industry or the bad habits of writers, but I won’t call those “retarded.” First, because it’s lazy. Second, because while that word may not seem to mean what it says, it still says what it means — and it’s short-code for being mentally handicapped no matter how you slice it. Third, and most importantly, because I don’t want to hurt people.

I think that one of the common defenses whipped out by people who make art — or hell, say things in any forum — that’s sexist or racist or transphobic is to say that they’re brave, speaking truths others dare not utter. The thing this, these people rarely speak these so-called truths to unfriendly audiences. And the easiest thing you can do with any audience is to confirm the beliefs they already hold. Sometimes, that can be a useful thing to do. Confirming that people aren’t alone in their beliefs or reactions to things can be a powerful way to bring marginalized people together. And telling people that their beliefs matter and are actionable in the world is a major mobilizing tool. But there’s a difference between those kinds of conversations and affirming people’s fears, prejudices, and need to be superior to someone. If you view giving offense as a sign of courage, it’s much more courageous to poke at your allies rather than the people weaker that you’ve determined to keep that way, to take a broad view, really see what the conventional wisdom is, and then challenge that. There are pieties in every movement, be it left, right, or center. But if you want to skewer them, you have to do better than “bitches be crazy” or “trans people are gross.” Smashing things and causing pain are not the same things as making a point.