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Get Over It!

There seems to be no end to the silly, frivolous things people today get upset and offended about. Surely there are serious issues which we should all be concerned about and wasting time on trivia just seems to be counter-productive. One of the more common trivial problems is that one group is “offended” by what another group or individual says.

Well OK, so they’re offended. So what? I would suggest two possible responses: first, show why the comment or action they are offended about is untrue or harmful in some way; or second, don’t get offended so easily. In other words: get over it!

There have been a few issues recently where people have become offended for various reasons and instead of reacting in one of the two way I mentioned above, they have chosen a third alternative: threaten and abuse the person who offended them. In other words, act in an even more offensive way than the original!

First, there is very odd case of St Matthews in the City church selling a billboard “skin” depicting a gay baby Jesus which has gained a lot of interest on the on-line auction site TradeMe. The billboard was used for publicity at Christmas and depicts a baby Jesus with a rainbow halo and the words “It’s Christmas. Time for Jesus to come out.”

Last time I heard the auction had reached $855 and had 29,000 views, although I can’t find it on the site now. The ad agency involved, “Einstein’s Hairdresser” (honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up), added many humorous and frivolous comments in response to questions about the auction.

It all sounds like a bit of fun and some great free publicity for both the church and the advertising agency, but many people have taken it away too seriously and sent quite bitter and vitriolic comments to both the church (such as that they are surely going to Hell, which means nothing to an atheist like me but is presumably a bit disturbing to a believer) and to the comment system on TradeMe.

The same church has done other similar advertising stunts in the past, some of which have been quote amusing, so presumably the risk of eternal damnation hasn’t concerned them too much. One thing they will be happy about though is all the free media attention they have got as a result of all the complaints!

A second issue was possibly a but less frivolous. It involved the comments made by a visiting Danish far-right politician who called a powhiri (a traditional Maori “welcoming” ceremony) an “uncivilised ritual”. She was shocked to be welcomed by “dancing half-naked men” instead of with handshakes or salutes as she expected.

She received many emails criticising her and some advising her never to return to New Zealand. But why? She only expressed an opinion. The artistry, appropriateness, and sophistication of various social and cultural activities is surely a matter of opinion and why shouldn’t she express hers instead of (as many people do) being disgusted or amused at the spectacle and keeping it to herself.

Of course the freedom to criticise this sort of stuff should apply to all cultures. If anyone doesn’t like the Maori hongi (touching nose and forehead with the person you are greeting) for example they shouldn’t object to others rejecting a handshake. People should also consider whether it is really worth making a big point out of something which is generally fairly innocuous and should maybe just go along with the social norms.

But the main point here is that if someone does feel uncomfortable in participating in a foreign cultural activity they really should be able to say so. It’s not like the politician said “Maori are disgusting sub-humans and I don’t want to have anything to do with their customs” (that would be genuinely racist) it was just one rather intimidating ceremony which she didn’t enjoy. Fair enough, I wouldn’t either.

The final issue involves a comment so extreme and bizarre that it does start reaching the point where genuine offense might be reasonable. A city councillor from New Zealand city Palmerston North has suggested Maori women should be sterilised to prevent them smoking in front of their children. Wow. What a comment. What can you say about that?

For a start this is crazy stuff, and making any sort of comment which is so out of touch with reality should cause concern whether it has a cultural offence component or not. The problem is more that saying something like this in a public meeting is just bizarre rather than being racist or offensive in some other way.

The councillor has apologised unreservedly and said he only made the comment out of frustration because no other actions seem to have worked. He has said he instantly regretted making it. I guess it is possible to say things you regret later in those situations and maybe the apology should have marked the place where things should have ended.

But again people are taking great offence and demanding that he should retire from office. It seems to me that the councillor is the person to have really been insulted here – by himself! I really don’t think there is any need for further efforts to inflict more damage on him as a result of any real or contrived offence.

So my point here is really that people who make what could be seen as offensive comments tend to be offering an opinion which might be seen as wrong by many, but which they should still be able to make. If it is so wrong then it should be easy to show that error, but just demanding that these opinions are never made because certain other people find them offensive is just hiding the phenomenon.

And for those who make comments which really are edging towards being offensive, they tend to do themselves more harm than good. Is it not better to know what they are thinking rather than have them them secretly acting on their strange ideas? As far as I am concerned all but the most extreme opinions should be welcome. And the most important point is this: anyone who does say something which is totally outrageous should be prepared to be criticised themselves.

But to those who hear something they don’t like and just expect it to go away because they are offended I say: grow up, and get over it!

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