The Word Police Have Us Fooled about What’s Offensive

When a celebrity is overheard exercising free speech, unsuppressed by political correctness, it can sometimes cause what we might call a kerfuffle.

L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling said he didn’t like his maybe-girlfriend flaunting that she hangs out with athletic black males, and speech-code enforcers rappelled down to baton his butt and make his life as difficult as possible.

Often the people causing all the fuss over taboo words, such as the word that is childishly referred to as “the N-word,” do not really believe there is anything wrong with the words; but they know that if they don’t act outraged, then they too will get in trouble. If Matt Damon’s children’s nanny’s husband was found out to have once called a Jew “the K-word,” Damon’s sponsors would drop him. The sponsors have to be seen doing something to someone to separate themselves from the gasp-inducing atrocity.

But almost nobody is honestly offended by controversial things, which are only controversial because people en masse designate them so. Ask each person separately what he or she personally thinks, however, and he’s likely to say, “Well, no, I personally don’t mind [this or that], but others might.” We’re all afraid of offending people, but really, those people are only concerned with not offending us. It’s stifling our ability to even think independently.

Sure, there are definitely some high-strung individuals with all manner of complexes who feel genuine offense at “controversial” things—but these are usually the same people who somehow feel genuine offense that men and women don’t share public restrooms. It’s these people who would boycott a corporation for not dropping Matt Damon for the aforementioned offense of several-degrees-removed association with a seeming anti-Semite. Why should a company care how this statistically insignificant number of people feel? Corporations (the people running them, that is) have the misconception that the number of ninnies and pantywaists out there is much greater than the number of people who are actually pretty chill about controversial happenings. Most of us can take controversy, but most of us don’t know that most of us can take it, so most of us pretend that others can’t take it so that we don’t offend those people, who, in actuality, would not be offended one bit.

But the human brain, to be content, requires medicine even for imagined wounds. Unfortunately, the authoritarian treatment of offenders is no longer limited to persons of high profile.

Low-level employees working for relatively insignificant companies or bureaucracies are more frequently finding themselves being punished for foolishly believing they have the right to exercise speech freely. They’re let go from their jobs by their supervisors who are only acting out of the misplaced fear that the majority of the populace cares what the employee said.

America would be so much better a country if we all stopped being afraid of controversial words and began using them liberally. We need to desensitize ourselves to these words—or, rather, we need to desensitize ourselves to the notion that others are sensitive to these words. The reality is that most of us only care about not offending others, not about not being offended ourselves.

We’re afraid of using words because certain people might pretend to be offended, and we’ve accepted the notion that being offended is something that must never happen to anybody.

Stop it! It’s okay if people are offended. It just might put a hair on their chest.