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Orwellian Phrase of the Week: “Offensive”

I find your use of the word “offensive” to be offensive.

Welcome back to The Proverbial Skeptic’s Orwellian Phrase of the week!

This week, our winner is: “offensive.”

Calling something offensive is the modern equivalent of a nineteenth century lady fainting during a risque theater performance while exclaiming, “well, I never!” 

I am talking about a particular usage of the word, in which the expected response is that the “offender” will become silent and apologize.

An Aside

I once saw an interview with the president of The Special Olympics, who was asking that people stop using the word “retarded” pejoratively, because it was offensive.

I got all ready to roll my eyes, but then he said that he wasn’t trying to play word police. He simply said that the broad use of that word hurt people that he knew so people ought to stop.

I think that’s a very good argument. If, all other things being equal, we are choosing to use a word that, for good reasons or bad, causes suffering, by all means we should stop using it.

So to the offendee who just doesn’t want their feeling unnecessarily hurt, I say this: I’ll try my best not to cause you suffering, and I am sorry.

The Real Issue

My problem with “offensive” is an altogether different one. There is another reason that people want to stop the use of a word on the basis that it is “offensive”, and that reason is simple censoriousness.

Being challenged is hard. Changing your mind is hard. Growing as a human being is hard. All of those things involve being offended. 

To the offendee who wants to use the word offensive as a tool for censorship, to white out from the pages of life the zesty and difficult and taxing words, I say this: A college degree and a sense of authority do not mean the world has to conform to your whims and feelings. Truth can be found both in the realm of the soft and pretty and happy, and in the realm of the dark and painful. 

The urge to shut down anything offensive to you comes from the notion that you have the divine right to adjudicate linguistic appropriateness and, worse, to go through life without difficulty.

I am persistently amazed that anybody thinks this way. It is childish, melodramatic, distracting, and self-involved. It is morally wrong. 

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Consider this response to being called offensive by Philip Pullman, author of, among other things, the beloved His Dark Materials children’s novels:

“…we need to be on our guard when people say they’re offended. No one actually has the right to go through life without being offended. Some people think they can say “such-and-such offends me” and that will stop the “offensive” words or behaviour and force the “offender” to apologise. I’m very much against that tactic. No one should be able to shut down discussion by making their feelings more important than the search for truth. If such people are offended, they should put up with it.”

To think that you have the right to not be offended reflects the maximum of megalomania. Thinking this way serves, in effect, to call yourself God.

To forbid the world from offending you elevates disagreement with you to Blasphemy.


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