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That’s Offensive!

November 30, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

A lot of people seem to be really easily offended. And almost every day I hear of someone who has to apologise for making an offensive comment. So there does seem to be a lot of offending and taking offence happening. What’s going on here? Are there a lot more aggressive, unpleasant people out there today? Does the internet make it easier to make offensive comments? Or are people just too sensitive and too easily offended?

I guess it’s a bit of all the above, but I tend to think (without any real empirical evidence) that some groups are just too easily offended. They might be too politically correct, or have no sense of humour, or just be too tied up with an ideology which looks for offence even when none was really meant.

Let me give a couple of examples…

My home city of Dunedin, New Zealand is going to accept some Syrian refugees soon. This might be a good thing as long as we get the good type of refugees instead of the type who want to blow things up, but surprisingly this is blog post not really about cultural stereotypes associated with Syrians!

At the welcoming ceremony it is intended to have some local culture, including some waiata (traditional Maori songs) and bagpipe music (Dunedin has significant Scottish heritage). After an item on this subject was broadcast on national radio a comment was sent to the station noting that making the refugees listen to bagpipes might contravene international laws against torture!

It was a joke, of course, and most people would just laugh about it. And as far as I know no one made any official (or unofficial) complaints because they thought it was disrespectful to Scottish culture. But what would have happened if someone had made a similar comment about the traditional Maori songs instead? In my opinion they are often dreary, tuneless and tedious. But if I had made a joke based on that observation there would almost certainly be complaints!

So, if I am right about that, offensive jokes involving a particular culture’s music aren’t really based on any inherent injustice or offensiveness of the comment because it depends on who the comment is aimed at. If the target determines what is offensive and what isn’t then it’s the person or group who are offended who determine the offensiveness of a comment, not the person making it.

My second example involves comedian, Jimmy Carr. Some of his material is really extreme and is probably designed specifically to be offensive, but only to get a laugh (at least according to him).

We wanted to create the shortest joke ever and came up with “dwarf shortage”. Obviously he thought that might cause offense so he had a follow-up line: “if you’re a dwarf and find that offensive, just grow up”. Of course that just caused more offence so he had a further one-liner: “I’m allowed to say that because they look up to me”. Pretty clever stuff, I thought.

But not according to the two people who made official complaints. As far as I know neither of them were actually dwarfs (or “little people” which I believe is the PC term nowadays).

Naturally this has done Carr’s reputation a lot of good, as he perhaps intended, which is particularly good for him since he is currently touring New Zealand. No doubt he will continue to push at the edges of good taste (let’s be honest: he goes away past the edges) and will no doubt offend a lot of people while he’s here. I’ve got a good tip for him: make a joke about a Maori dwarf. No matter what he says that will definitely cause offence!

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