The Impulse to Take Offense

All of us, if we search widely enough, can find ourselves a minority group into which we can fit. Even if you’re a white male, there’s always something about you — your religious or sexual proclivities, your dressing habits, your viewpoint on animals or voting rights or the 2nd Amendment — that will situate you comfortably in the oppressed minority. And if you’re a person of color, a woman, or an immigrant, the task is even easier.

Identifying oneself with a minority group can certainly be a gesture of pride. Knowing there are others like you can bring a sense of security and contentment. It can, for some people, provide an identity that they might otherwise lack — e.g., I may look like a homogenous corporate soldier, but actually I’m a Jewish homosexual hockey fan. Deal with it!

One of the pitfalls of minority identification, however, is the tendency to be offended by the majority, many of whom, it seems, do not understand you and your group. They say rude things and treat you differently than they would one of their own. They seem to view you — and everyone else who isn’t part of the mainstream — like a second-class citizen. Your radar if finely tuned to the slights, real and implied, that society at large is constantly hurling your way. All you want is a little respect, a modicum of decency, not special treatment. But the majority is always degrading [fill in your minority group of choice].

We witnessed another example of this syndrome recently when a popular network TV sitcom aired an episode in which one of the (fictional) characters made a (not very funny) joke about the quality of education in one Asian nation’s medical schools, implying that she wouldn’t trust her doctor if his diploma came from overseas. Soon after the episode aired, citizens of this Republic and immigrants from this Republic and relatives of people from this Republic began to express their outrage that their medical schools — and by extension their minority group — had been the butt of a (not very funny) joke. Letters and petitions were circulated calling for various apologies and boycotts and dismissals, and, eventually, after blowing off some righteously indignant steam, this group went about their business, much of which includes providing superb medical care for patients around the world.

Blinded by the rage one understandably feels when one senses “discrimination,” this group and their spokespeople missed a crucial point: this stupid joke was uttered by a stupid character on a stupid TV show, a mindless entertainment that makes no pretensions to factual accuracy, cultural sensitivity, or even a modicum of thoughtfulness — which is probably why so many Americans watch this and other highly rated lint.

Paralyzed by the masochistic pleasure of being offended, of being important enough to be “targeted,” the minority group temporarily loses its collective mind, not realizing that when a fictional character says something boorish, calling for corporate apologies is crazy. Indeed, in a strange, unintentional paradox, it bestows backward legitimacy on the derogatory comment, as though such disposable utterings require a serious response. That the government of Kazakhstan bothered itself with outraged protests against Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Borat somehow made his performance funnier. Even the bureaucrats were disturbed!

As long as our speech remains free, someone is going to say something offensive about someone else. Indeed, certain declarations about torture emanating from our Justice Department cause great offense to the minority of us who believe in civil liberties and due process. But we must take care to differentiate between assertions of fact and the inane blabbering of fictional jesters. When lowbrow sitcom entertainment is mistaken for gospel truth, we’re all in trouble.

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