Look: people are going to get offended at stuff that doesn't offend you. You're going to get offended at things that don't offend other people. How you reconcile these things will help determine how you blunder along in the course of expressing yourself and dealing with other folks in our odd society.
Today's example: the wildly popular newly released game Portal 2 — sequel to a hit that launched many internet memes — features a rude character who teases and berates the player's character. At one point, the teasing focuses on adoption: "Alright, fatty. Adopted fatty. Fatty, fatty no parents," and so on.
Neal Staple, an adoptive parent in North Carolina, encountered this while playing the game with his daughter, and was so offended that he went to the media about it.
While Stapel and his wife have never hidden the fact their child is adopted, they says they wanted to wait until she was ready to talk about.
"It throws the question, the most ultimate question that child is ever gonna have for you and it just throws it right in your living room," he said. "It says it's rated "E" for everybody and I'm thinking maybe it's rated "E" for everybody except for orphans.
Stapel also said the most people won't even think the joke is problematic. "If you're not an adoptive parent it's probably not that big a deal to you," he said. "If you are it's literally the worst thing I could have probably heard."
Of course, gamers are offended that Mr. Stapel is offended and are ridiculing him, which is the primary mode of interaction for the online gaming culture. They point out that Stapel seems overly dramatic, and argue that the phrase "literally the worst thing I could have probably heard" is silly hyperbole. (That's true enough, but it's the sort of observation you make if you've never been interviewed by the press for half an hour, only to find that the resulting article or video only quoted the thirty seconds of stupid over-the-top and off-the-top-of-your-head shit you said, because that's what draws eyes and ears to stories.) They also argue, more reasonably, that the rude character in Portal 2 is portrayed as rude, and what he says is supposed to be obnoxious, and that it's silly to take it as the designer's opinion as opposed to negative characterization of a character.
But speaking as an adoptive father (and as someone who has been extensively interviewed by the press, only to have my reasonable and eloquent statements ignored and my stray stupid and/or incoherent statements emphasized), I'm sympathetic to Mr. Stapel. If I were playing Portal 2 with any of my kids and we came across the adoption-mocking, I'd feel pretty awful. If the kids reacted, I'd struggle to explain why it was there; if they didn't react, I'd struggle to decide whether to bring it up. Sure, I know what I could say to them: that the character is supposed to be a jerk, that one way they show he's a jerk is by having him say mean things about adoption, and that there are jerks in the world, and that in our family we know that there's nothing wrong with being adopted. But I'd be angry (at most) or annoyed (at least) on behalf of my kids, the way I am when the media trades on bad seed tropes, or takes pains to remind people that adopted kids must be distinguished from "real" kids at all costs. I'd get stabby, the way I do whenever someone trades in the hilarious trope that being adopted is terrible, as in this picture that frequently pops up on "funny picture" threads:
And yet — even though I am a Person of Girth, someone frequently teased for being fat as a child — I'm totally unoffended by the "fatty fatty" part of the Portal 2 character's insults. Is it clearer that it's part of characterizing the imaginary character as a jerk? Am I more hardened by our culture to fat-based insults? Am I more protective of my kids (who are far more athletic than I) than I am of myself? Am I too distracted by this delicious deep-fried bacon? Who knows. But to someone out there, the "fatty fatty" insults hurt, and the adoption ones don't. People are funny that way; our reactions are idiosyncratic. (In a similar vein, I've seen people I respect — people who themselves support adoption, people who are not generally assholes — post that "you're adopted!" pic above.)
So what, you ask? So maybe we should keep our different starting points in mind when we express offense and when we react to people expressing offense. I'm not suggesting that we should take all expressions of offense at face value, and I'm certainly not saying we should yield to the demands of the offended. There's no right to be free of offense, and the fact of offense does not justify censorship. Moreover, some people claim offense in a dramatically exaggerated way, or for personal or political gain or for attention, and we ought to feel free to explore their motives. But stating that we find something obnoxious is not the same as demanding censorship or stifling speech; rather, it's return speech, a further contribution to the marketplace of ideas. The right to be an ass does not include the right to be free of being called an ass, even if that reaction is irrational. Should we get angry and offended when someone else takes offense and demands censorship? Sure, because censorship (rationally defined) is offensive and contemptible. But getting all butthurt because someone merely expresses offense is rather silly and weak.
On the other side of the coin, if we find something obnoxious, we should say so. But we ought not race to the conclusion that our audience is made up of horrible people if they don't see it the same way. Offense is personal. Some things will offend most decent people; some will not.
I'm sure that I've said things here that offend people. That's the risk when you try to be funny or strident or aggressive. I'm fine with hearing when I've offended someone. I may not agree that I did anything wrong, I may not apologize, I may not change how I act — and I certainly won't give in to bullying censorship demands. But hearing that I offended someone only gives me information that I can use as I choose in interacting with my fellow men, bearing in mind Oscar Wilde's maxim "A gentleman is someone who never gives offense — unintentionally." Hopefully, if I've been a dick inadvertently or in the heat of the moment, I'll have what it takes to react appropriately.
Edit: Another gamer community reacts.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
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- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017