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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Playing Against the Offense

<u’re offended? So what? No, really. So what?” Even without the context of this line, it sounds intimidating, verging on blunt dismissal. This is from commentator Charles Sykes’ “50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School.” The book, one discovered by chance at the suggestion of older colleagues and a teacher who owned a copy, had some plausible rules like “Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them. We all could.” Others were provocative rules like the earlier line. Despite his overt criticism of our youth culture, from boomerang kids to the “everyone is a winner” mentality (not to mention the softening of America to a nation of wimps and moochers), many points struck out to me, especially the one on offense.

Throughout my high school years, I remember watching from the sidelines from the windows of the television or the newsmagazine in my hands (or more increasingly the iPod from which I read articles from), seeing instance after instance of one group crying foul over something offensive in culture. I would think back to Sykes’ words, as though they were key in preventing any national inflammation. At least for some years before coming to Carleton, I thought of myself as above offense, the debates of race and ethnicity and class and sex beneath me as I also thought of another line from Sykes: “A willingness to be offended… is a decision to be a whiner and emotional bully.”

Thus, a moral imperative to not be offended – actually, to ignore it.

Wishful thinking only brought me so far. I knew I’ve been offended before, even by my little brother over my weight then. There was some thick skin grown over the years, as childish jibes like “chubby” and “fat” faded into nothingness – or to the occasional nostalgia trip. Yet as I found out last year, when it comes to expecting thick skin for offensive language, it was easier said by Sykes than done.

Actually, the experience of offense that I had last year was a series of microaggressions. Each time, they followed the same script with the same friend (who shall be nameless and genderless for this recollection). This friend would often comment on something I said or did, perhaps not in the best manner. In one instance, I would say, “Did you turn off the lights?” This friend responds with a chuckle, “We say ‘switch off’ the lights here in America.” It happens again a few more times when a slip of grammar causes me to say “I made the meat for the taco,” to which I get the snide chuckle and response “Wait, you ‘made’ the meat? Don’t you mean you ‘prepared’’ or ‘cooked’ it? I don’t know how you do things where you’re from, but here, we don’t say that.” Very fair grammatical point, but notice the theme this “friend” is pushing across.  

The near-tipping point came as I sat, joking around with my then-girlfriend. I teasingly gave a soft punch to her shoulder in the form of a shove. The friend – let’s call this person J. – proceeded to say “Hey! I don’t know how you do things in the Philippines, but here in America, we don’t do that!” Now, I understand that heteronormative chivalry dictates that men do not hit women. My girlfriend then and I knew we were kidding – no harm intended (chivalry or no chivalry). This time was like any other, script-wise. However, it didn’t feel like any other time these moments happened – it seemed like the proverbial last straw.

Afraid, I had my girlfriend take care of conveying my concerns over what J. said, to which I later got the wrecking-ball response from J., “He needs to get over himself.” For several days, pallid clouds followed me as the scenes of these experiences of offense play out in my head. And so it seemed that you never knew how bad offense was until you experienced it yourself, creeping in and latching on you from out of nowhere… How could I not have the right to feel rotten about what J. said? It seemed like I didn’t.
Then again, I have been offended before, and not just on matters of weight. For years, it seemed as though I had bottled up all of those little instances of exclusion from what were played off as “jokes” by J. The idea of these jokes were to convey the sense of my foreignness, thanks to my identification as Asian-American. Not unlike the time I remember walking down a street in middle school days and seeing bystanders imitating the usual “ching-chong” sing-songy mockery of pseudo-Chinese that didn’t even make sense – and I’m not even the idea of “Asian” that is stereotypically held.

I remembered this and so many more instances when I went to Boxes and Walls this past weekend. If you haven’t been before, I highly recommend attending when this occurs in two years’ time, as you will be provoked to rethink and reconsider the barriers we put around ourselves and around others. I became captive to memory in one room, where we were writing our heritage and cultural identifications on a piece of paper (as instructed), only to have them crossed out so suddenly by Sharpie pens held by room volunteers. With all symbolisms considered, the memories of J. were evoked, how she was just like that Sharpie pen crossing out lines of my life that had meaning. We all have meaning. That’s what offense does – it take it all away.

Surely I may be exaggerating on the connection, but it still stands that I was reminded, as I have come to accept – no, come to terms with once again – in recent years that offense was still out there, still ready to make you upset. And should I be afraid of being one of the “angry people” that Sykes reduced about? Not really. In fact, considering Sykes’ position in America as a white male, it can be safe to say that he is likely not to have belonged to any of the groups that have been historically oppressed. Sykes of course still is a legitimate voice rhetorically, but he may not be in the position of having ever been offended, and so it seems easy for him to say and to suggest to others that they shouldn’t have to feel offended.

The “angry people” whom Sykes is concerned about aren’t truly representative of those of us who do find objectionable things in insensitive events or words. If anything, Sykes is tacking on the most vocal of the voices of criticism, and as we have seen about vocal people, they become the ones the media and the public tack on. When it all comes down to regular people down the hall or across the campus, or in many places across the nation, at least very few people really intend to be maliciously offensive in the end. We are all human and wish for the same things in life in finding joy and meaning – or not, depending on your ideas. Offense is the last thing intended.

It does get tiring to be angry, though, and Sykes is at least right about that. Relations are well between J. and me now, and I am less angry. I believe in J.’s humanity, in spite of what I can attribute to ignorance of being around different people than J.’s self. I am not angry with J. – rather, it may be better to direct my energies towards the greater goal of dealing with difference and past positively. We will need to deal with it with compassion, and we can’t simply disregard human emotion that has been painfully (and unintentionally) wrought upon others. So yes, to join the choir that has voiced itself here in issues past, we must handle offensiveness on the microscopic, individual level, with the hope to educate but see the best intentions in others. We won’t always get the results we want, but we must hope anyway. So you’re offended? Then please let me understand why.

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