Some Offensive Thoughts
The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended that anyone.
We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.
Col. Kurtz, Apocalypse Now.
It’s not that you are giving offence, but that you are speaking to those who are experts it taking it.
Meaning is a grave threat to the system man. It is dismissed by aggregating formally similar, but radically dissimilar, behaviours into a single negative category. Someone who opposes Israel reducing Palestine to rubble, for example, is grouped with someone who hates or opposes the entire Jewish race (‘anti-semitic’), someone who questions the causes or the nature of ‘homosexuality’ is grouped with someone who hates or discriminates against gay people (‘homophobic’), someone who questions the ability of mind to solve its own problems is grouped with someone who is unreasonable or emotional (‘irrational’ or ‘stupid’), someone who believes that the power to dispose of surplus should be in the hands of the people is grouped with someone who believes that such power should in the hands of a central state (‘socialist’), someone who questions ‘feminism’ is grouped with someone who dislikes ‘women’ (‘sexist’), and so on, and so on, and so on.
This is not a conscious process. What happens is, ego — the unconscious self-informing self — sniffs out existential threat and gets emotional — angry, irritated, bored, anxious, etc. Fine distinctions then become impossible to discern, ‘trigger words’ stick out, as does the absence of reassuring markers (the requisite number of gender neutral pronouns, the right references, the correct term of respect, etc) and the lexis, register, style or level of abstraction all signal ‘unprofessional’, ‘alien,’ ‘bigoted’ or ‘heretical’. The message seems pretentious, amateurish, offensive or biased, and is rejected without serious consideration. Not because it actually is any of these things, but because the reader or hearer wishes to dispense with the unpleasant feeling it provokes.
Nothing makes those who perceive and understand reality through the literal rational mind, more emotional than non-literal language; comedy, metaphor, implication, irony, silence, or any other communication which, ultimately, takes meaning from context and tone. Systems man correctly intuits that non-literal language is ungraspable and ungovernable. This creates in him an anxious, instinctive urge to control language, make rigid definitions and explode in outrage at ‘unacceptable’ usage.
People who get offended by ‘offensive language’, say they wish to end discrimination, and in one sense they’re right. They do. But the word discrimination has two, radically different, meanings. One is negative; to make unjust or prejudicial distinctions of category (of race, gender, age, etc.) — which is to say of obvious (manifest, formal) features. The other meaning is positive: to make just and discerning distinctions of quality (of character, tone, flavour, etc.) — which is to say of subtle (incipient, essential) differences.
If it is impossible to do the former (formally discriminate — use bad words) it becomes impossible to do the latter (essentially discriminate — tell the difference between abusive intent and merely offensive language); and this suits guardians of meaning just fine. They want certain words and ideas to be off-limits, in order to prevent or curtail implicit communication. This is why they wage indiscriminate war on ‘discrimination’. Prohibitions — both spoken and unspoken — on ‘inappropriate laughter’, ‘awkward silences’, looking into each other’s eyes, ‘pretension’ and all serious talk of death serve the same purpose.
Marginalise Them, Imprison Them, Kill Them… but Don’t Offend Them!
Many — maybe even most — modern states and corporations (particularly media corporations) have guidelines on the correct language to use when referring to disabled people, women, ‘people of colour’, members of the LGBTQ ‘community’, etc. In other words, the most dishonest, repressive and destructive organisations ever to have existed in human history are scrupulously fair, respectful and tolerant in their use of language.
Is it not odd that the global south is poorer than it has ever been, that black people are more marginalised than they have ever been, that ordinary people are more disabled than they have ever been (less able to use their feet to live, or use their mouths to speak and be heard), that femininity is more rigidly suppressed than ever before; and yet we are less able to use words that might offend women, the poor, black people or the disabled? Could there be a connection?
Would you prefer to live in a world in which coercive power-relations, intense stratification and brutal suppression of dissent and mystery did not exist but where everyone freely used the words ‘nigger’, ‘spaz’, ‘chick’ and ‘bender’? Or would you feel more comfortable in a world in which nobody ever uses derogatory terms but where a small glittering club of rich, beautiful, elites lorded it over everyone else?
I’m hoping, as before, I don’t need to tell you where we do live.
The First Taboo is Mocking Self
If one person says God speaks to him, and nobody believes him, he’s insane. If ten thousand people believe him, he’s a prophet and you’ve got yourself a religion.
If one person is offended by a word, he’s nuts. If ten thousand are offended, it’s an Offensive Word, and you’ve got yourself a ‘community’.
Gay is just a word, Spaz is just a word, Nigger is just a word. They have no intrinsic meaning. We — humans — give these sounds meaning, and we can take it away, as we please. Black people call each other nigger because tone (‘non-verbals’, atmosphere, ‘vibe’, etc.) and context (situation, sentence, culture, etc.) inform them that there is no abuse here. Contrariwise I can call you a ‘table’ and, depending on the tone and context, it will be either friendly or abusive. Coming down on the dictionary meaning because you’ve been triggered by the offensive sound of ‘table’ effaces both.
Words do, of course, have abstract, non-contextual ‘dictionary’ meanings — which is why we should sometimes be careful about using them, particularly when writing (smiley face!). People can get hurt with offhand comments. But. Meaning is subordinate to context and tone. Abuse does not and cannot, ultimately, reside in the formal meaning of a word. Indiscriminately restricting the use of a word, no matter how ‘offensive’, necessarily restricts tonally or contextually truthful utterances of it*; particularly, and crucially, light-hearted ones. This is why guardians of meaning, those who get up in arms about offence (which they falsely call ‘abuse’), always take themselves very seriously. They seek to prohibit the means by which we can laugh at selves by placing taboos on all ‘offensive’ descriptors of self, such as race, sex, physical appearance and diagnostic identity. The next step will be to make satire directed at professionals, elites, management and taste in box-sets ‘abusive’.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can literally eviscerate the identity politician.
At the most extreme end of the offended spectrum are a group of people who react to words as if they are capable of doing real, actual, physical harm. Say the wrong thing to these people and watch the hearts clutched, the tears and trembling, the swoons and faints. They even need things called ‘trigger warnings’ on texts; because the pages might contain incantations which can fly from the pages and ravage them. The hyperoffended walk, daily, through a miasma of diabolic oppression — again, literally oppressing — a world of shadows which, with the utterance of a hex, (‘the N word,’ ‘the R word,’ ‘the B word,’ shh! I dare not utter these spells), can fly upon them. A darkness.
The correct term for such people is ‘Identity Politicians,’ those who preach ‘Identity Politics’. These folk have, essentially, a religious experience of reality, in which words and ideas are as real as physical things, with the power to rend and flay; from which security and power are acquired through handing personal responsibility over entirely to a commanding ideology; to which the entire personality must submit.
The religious world view is based on a self comprised entirely of emotions and thoughts, or categories; a rigid taxonomy, comprised entirely of goodies and baddies. Goodies — Muslims, for examples, or women, or black people, or Americans or whoever is on ‘our side’ — are right simply by virtue of their category. Baddies wrong, simply by virtue of theirs. If baddies silence, exclude or abuse, it must be heretical (racist / sexist / fascist / communist / atheist / superstitious / etc.), while if goodies do, the act cannot be wrong.
The religionist or cult-member is generally not difficult to spot. Existing almost entirely as a mental-emotional entity they are beset by constant low-lying addiction, anxiety, an irritability which snaps at the slightest prod, prone to fury, depression and wild flights of emotional over-excitement. They are also ponderously literal, famously humourless, joyless, repressed and motivated by resentment at other people’s playfulness and pleasure (‘I am not joyous, so you may not be’). All of this they defend, tooth-and-nail, for the simple reason that they feel it. Any attempt to question their feelings (actually emotions), or the boundaries of their carefully organised and vigilantly policed categories, is utterly intolerable and met with immediate, fantastic, infantile and violent overreaction, for their mental-emotional identity must be preserved at all costs.
This identity, of the cult and its members, exists in a [largely Western] realm of binary categories, and so depends completely upon the existence of enemies. The goody can no more exist without a baddy, than left can without right, and so antagonists must be manufactured at the same rate as justifications. While the cult is excluded from power, those who have power are obvious targets, but as soon as the cult gains power it must, instead, generate moral panics, witch-hunts and denunciation campaigns.
The supreme power, of course, is the state, to which all cult-members aspire. They are not interested in radically altering the hierarchical structure of the system, or of dropping out of it, rather they desire to play the dominant role or occupy the top spot within it, at which point the state becomes Marxist, Buddhist, feminist, black or Jedi, the commissars jump ship and join Oceania, and the oppression roles along, as was, with all its categories intact and all its contentions uninterrupted.
It is in compatibility with the state that one of the essential commonalities between cults is most clearly discerned. There is no contradiction, whatsoever, in the concepts of ‘atheist state’, ‘socialist state’, ‘Islamic state’, ‘democratic state,’ ‘scientific state’, ‘totalitarian state’, ‘Jewish state’ or ‘fully automated luxury communist state.’
‘Anarchist state’ however — that doesn’t make sense.
To summarise: The identity politician complains about privilege, yet is typically a member of the middle-class or ardently desirous of systemic power. The identity politician complains about ‘being silenced,’ yet shuts down all criticism immediately and ferociously. The identity politician complains about ‘victim-blaming’ yet never criticises the system which relentlessly suppresses the idea that the environment causes conflict, crime, physical ill-health or outright madness. The identity politician believes herself to be an oppressed radical while aspiring to state control, regularly supporting centralised power or happily working for a large corporation. The identity politician complains about ‘objectification’ yet sees the entire world and everyone in it, as a collection categories; you are not an individual, you are ‘white’ or ‘a man’. The identity politician complains about ‘fragile egos,’ yet demonstrably possesses a self so extraordinarily delicate and brittle, it can shatter at a word. The identity politician is not a happy bunny.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Censorman!
Guardians of meaning might react emotionally to Bad Words, but it is nearly always second-hand outrage, on behalf of others. They believe that ‘offensive language’ should be made illegal or impossible because of the effect it will have on people, on others, on the victims. They are vulnerable, they are swayed by bad words, they cannot be trusted to hear bad things.
Thankfully though, the superhuman censor is immune to the rays of evil emitted by offensive comedy, radical speech and the naked body. Censorman makes his cuts and edits, passes his laws or boils over in second-hand outrage because the people are not so strong. It’s for their good, you see?
Thank you censorman!
They’re Radicalising the Children!
Free speech, we are told, is a luxury that we cannot afford in times of darkness, when ISIS and Nazis and paedophiles are running around ready to groom or radicalise innocent, helpless children. But it’s okay to allow school syllabuses that condition students to view systemic credentialism and the ministrations of professional middle-men as preconditions for productive activity and a meaningful life, not to mention all capitalist advertising, much of the junk that passes for ‘independent academic study,’ just about the entire output of Hollywood and all official pronouncements to gain free access to children’s minds.
And it’s okay to shape the world so that people are forced to depend upon a disabling, racist, abusive, hateful, unnatural, corrupt and humanity-punishing system which stunts their awareness, warps their experience and degrades their sensitivity to the point where they lap up ludicrous ideologies. That’s fine — it’s that bad people are taking advantage of our brainwashed masses. That’s the problem.
Official outrage at ‘hate speech,’ ‘racist slurs,’ ‘sexist terms,’ ‘ableist insults’ and so on is a cover for an inherently hateful, racist, sexist and disabling system. Once enough ‘offensive’ and ‘unpleasant’ language has been ruled indiscriminately** illegal or taboo it becomes impossible to criticise power (the same laws used to silence abusive language are used to silence criticism of abusive behaviour) and that suits power just fine; because the only thing worse than those who wish to brainwash the masses are those who wish to free them. Thankfully both groups use the same language, so they can both be disposed with by policing ‘offensive’ speech.
Just as you must be an expert to correctly use terms like energy, paradox, immoral or what-have-you, so non-specialist usage of words such as ‘autistic,’ ‘schizo,’ and ‘cripple’ are ruled to be inherently stigmatising. It is simply unthinkable that non-professionals can redefine these words, or that scientific usage should not be considered dominant, or that tone and context trump the official dictionary. No: the instant you use the word ‘nutter’ you offend the proud bearers of professional diagnoses because only they, and the priests who define them, have the right to decide what their special words mean.
Soon we will not be able to use words like ‘paranoid,’ ‘cancerous,’ ‘lazy’ or ‘dull’ because those who have been officially diagnosed with paranoia, cancer, low-energy-syndrome and chronically-subservient-disorder will be offended, and those who diagnose them will be complaining that ‘you shouldn’t use terms you don’t understand’.
Respect and Serve
First we could use ‘negro’ — and by ‘we’ I mean ordinary, non-racist people. Then Malcolm X came along and we had to use ‘black’. Now, we have to use the ridiculous circumlocution ‘people of colour’. This game of decamping from one word or expression because a group of psychopaths have rendered it insulting not only ignores the source of racism, but, ultimately, in raising the wall between formality and informality higher (children, friends and comedians will continue to use the non-standard word, but we must now use the correct word in public) actually serves power. A standard matrix of taboo words is used to conceal social power-relations and personal egoic insanity behind gentility. Only a stupid slave-owner uses racist language, only a drunk upper-manager calls his wage-slaves ‘plebs’ and only an ageing comedian calls women ‘birds’. An elite, racist, sexist system is far better served by limitations on such language, for the same reason that the most abusive parents never explicitly suppress, belittle or even criticise their children. As RD Laing put it:
‘Rule A: Don’t. Rule A.1: Rule A does not exist. Rule A.2: Do not discuss the existence or nonexistence of Rules A, A.1, or A.2.’
I repeat. Having a clean, formal, linguistic world of inoffensive language, respectful expression and so on, carefully policed to expunge offence, serves power. Without the formal smokescreen of inoffensive language (aka Huxleyan propaganda), the actual repression and bigotry of criminal state-corporate activity, would be easier to perceive. If poor black people — to take one example — stopped listening to middle-class voices focusing their attention on offensive and racist language, they might realise they have more in common with poor white people than rich black people; a prospect which fills all in power with dread, hence the existence of Tokenism.
Tokenism and the Poor Bourgeoisie
Tokenism is a means of diffusing class antagonisms by allowing a few individuals from a subjugated class to rise into positions of privilege. The working class as a whole are systemically held in place and prevented from ever rising, but sufficiently ‘gifted’ and — crucially — ambitious members are permitted to join the middle and, every now and then, the upper classes. Thus all legal barriers for individuals must be removed and all verbal expressions of prejudice punished. The bright young kid from the working class must be allowed to use the same hotels, employ the same lawyers, drive the same cars and have the same access to the same top jobs as the rest of society. The working class as a whole don’t give a toss, but the ‘working class bourgeoisie’ do, as do the upper classes they join, which benefit in three ways; firstly from infusions of [usually superior] intelligence and creativity from the working class, secondly from the revolution-diffusing illusion of ‘meritocracy’ that tokenism provides (‘sure the system is unfair, but at least my kid can become a doctor’) and thirdly from depriving the threatening multitude of its best leadership material.
All this applies to racial minorities. Historically some immigrant groups, as a whole, have been permitted to rise from the lowest rungs. Those that have been prevented from entry into the Happy Land however, or who have arrived late to the party, find themselves in the same predicament as the working class. Black people, for example, have been the victims of de facto apartheid in the West for hundreds of years, a potentially incendiary situation for their overlords, who, ever since the end of slavery, have dealt with the threat in two ways. Firstly, tokenism — legal equality with whites, access for blacks to the dominant institutions of society, taboos against racist speech and the creation of a small black bourgeoisie, utterly dependent on the white oligarchy.
The second means by which power has diffused revolutionary racial movements is good old divide and rule. Poor black people and poor white people are in the same situation but are actively prevented from perceiving their identical class-interests by a system which keeps them apart and competing with each other for the same artificially scarce opportunities and resources . This stimulates groupthink, prejudice and status anxiety which make it impossible for mixed race groups of shared class-interest to form. The privileged classes then shake their heads, sadly, at the resulting racism while sitting on top of a Pyramid of Evil which requires it.
Beaten by the Big Rule Book
Must we take history into account when using words which are ‘offensive’ to some historically persecuted minorities? If so, how far back must we go? Also, what is the cut-off point for size of persecuted minority? Also, are some kinds of minority more worthy of this kind of protection than others? If so, why? Also, which of the following words are we allowed to use and why?
bastard (historically used to impugn people out of wedlock), sod (once used to insult men who put their penises into the anuses of other men), villain (used in the past to insult the rustic poor), rogue (traditionally a scornful term for a beggar), witch (a word once so deeply insulting whole villages of women could be burnt by its application).
Also, can I say to a black person, ‘you snugging igger’? If not, why? What about ‘you gicking inker’? If not, why? What kinds of sound are permitted?
All completely ridiculous of course. The point is, if you are going to rule out meaning, intent, context and tone and rely exclusively on a rule book, it’s going to end up being a very, very long one.
Wouldn’t it just be easier, and more productive and, ultimately, more meaningful, to allow us to say what we want and to work, instead, to be kind and loving to each other?
You fucking table.
* The same is true for most ‘immoral acts’. ‘Killing’, ‘stealing’, ‘lying’ or just about anything else ‘bad’ are not, in themselves, wrong and so making laws banning these things automatically rules out contextually just acts that are formally identical. (Child abuse and rape are obviously exceptions, and, likewise, you could probably think up a few verbal expressions that no context could possibly validate; but the point still holds.)
** Freedom of speech is founded on context; which is to say on the power of individuals and communities to determine what is appropriate. Defenders of centralised (state and corporate) censorship conflate contextual control over one’s environment with indiscriminate thought policing. Walking away from someone who is talking shit, turning off the television, and for individuals or communities to punish or even contextually ‘silence’ harmful lies is not ‘suppression of freedom of speech’.