The Social Justice Case for Offense

The following is a guest post by Jeremiah Traeger. Jeremiah is a Ph.D. student at University of Colorado, Boulder. He appears on the No Religion Required Podcast, a broadcast that works to have productive discussions on humanism and elevate everyone’s voice in the world wide secular community. Here Jeremiah provides a nuanced argument on why offending people can actually be a necessity for social justice. Content note: racial and sexual violence


This past week, Darkmatter2525 put out a cartoon attacking “social justice warriors.” While personally, I and many others like myself don’t self-identify under the banner of “social justice warrior,” we are bestowed this label when we bring up basic social justice issues, and any of the concepts brought up in this video. The bar is low, I’ve been called this when doing things as simple as acknowledging that societal racism and trans persons exist. Regardless, Darkmatter2525 seems to fall into the common practice of misunderstanding ideas such as “privilege” and “safe spaces” and ridiculing a straw concept of them, instead of how they are actually discussed and used in practice.*

What I find curious is that among the SJW behaviors he brings up, the one he depicts as going too far is the smearing of menstrual blood on their faces. This is a reference to the protest at Rutgers University against conservative blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, where students smeared fake blood across each others faces. I find it curious, because the common characterization of the “politically correct” movement is that they are too sensitive and are offended by any given topic. In fact, that is exactly what Milo came to talk about regarding college campuses. When I think about walking on eggshells and hypersensitivity, a blatant depiction of blood covering faces isn’t exactly one that comes to mind, particularly when we still seem to have a societal phobia of menstruation. I really can’t get on board with some sentiments from the students, one statement being “If a speaker makes someone feel unsafe or uncomfortable, then they should not come to campus.” That seemed far more of a problem than the act of depicting menstrual blood everywhere. Overall it is a shocking display that sends a definite message. It is downright offensive.

What I find funny is that when social-justice minded people merely use words to criticize or speak out against bigoted speech that marginalizes some, we are depicted as crybabies who get their feelings hurt when they are offended. At the same time, when students go as far as this, they have become the outrage brigade who will go to insane lengths to make a point. It’s almost as if people don’t care how the message is delivered, they’d rather that we just shut up.

This particular post is not to rail against Darkmatter and tear him down. In fact, based on the video description, we may not disagree on where the biggest harms lie. I still really enjoy his work (his deconstruction of the story of Samson is hilarious), and if anything I would be happy to discuss these issues and try to work them out without having to resort to hyperbole on either side. What this post is really about is the use of offense, shock, and the utilization of free speech to the fullest extent through a social justice angle. There’s a ridiculous dichotomy that’s often depicted as the regressive left vs. free speech nazis, and far too often people on either side feel they have to pick between two camps. The reality is far better. Not only is offensive speech compatible with social justice, it’s occasionally necessary.

Offense is a tool

First of all, I find that it is rarely the case that when someone is wronged, that they actually cite the reason they are being wronged is because they are offended. This might come as a surprise to the anti-SJW crowd (for lack of a better term). While something may indeed offend, this is not the primary source of any given response. Certain speech is more likely wrong because it marginalizes folks, because it supports an oppressive narrative, or it lends support to a system where minority communities are left in poverty or trans people are murdered at a disproportionately high rate. Even the most right-wing secularist must realize that reducing someone else’s position to just “being offended” is the same rhetoric that theocracy-supporting evangelicals use when justifying Christian prayers at graduation ceremonies or religious monuments at government buildings. Theocrats mischaracterize secular activism by crying “they want to take down the ten commandments because they’re OFFENDED!” and then they tell atheists just to look away if they can’t handle it. Not surprisingly, they don’t seem to address the actual arguments by atheists: that these actions are unconstitutional, that they allow the government to give religious privilege to one religious group over all others, and that they eradicate the ever-useful wall between church and state. The parallels between the behaviors of various internet atheists and theocrats are similar regarding this point, since neither seem to ignore that “offending someone” is not the actual crime.

That being said, there are some people who I would otherwise agree with on social justice issues who have bought into this idea that “offending” is necessarily wrong (see the quote in the second paragraph). This is absolutely not the case. For one thing, even something as small as bringing visibility to certain issues will offend many prudish conservative sensibilities. Merely telling someone that you are gay causes evangelicals to immediately reel in disgust at the sexual depravity that they would characterize as being just as wrong as bestiality. The Openly Secular Campaign has taken similar cues from the gay rights movement in spreading the word that atheists actually exist. People are continually shocked that atheists would even have the gall to openly deny that their ever-personal foundational beliefs are founded on superstition and false claims. I’m reminded of the Dennett quote, “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.” When someone has been raised to believe lies that there are no atheists and gays are depraved immoral Sodomites, you are literally shocking people’s foundational beliefs, and that offense is a good thing that causes them to question.

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[Image: A masculine trans man in a bathroom, with the caption “Do I look like I belong in women’s facilities? Republicans are trying to get legislation passed that will put me there, based on my gender at birth. Trans people aren’t going in the bathroom to spy on you, or otherwise cause you harm, #wejustneedtopee. Trans lives matter! Image from @_michaelhughes ]

The target audience for this meme should certainly be offended by this.

Of course, this type of offense is incidental to coming out. All things being equal, most would probably not want to offend, which is why they’re in the closet in the first place. There are other forms of offense that are far more intentional, and that we may be keen to utilize. May I remind everyone of the free the nipple campaign? Or nude protests? And yes, Darkmatter, protests involving menstruation? The presence of women’s nipples may be an incredibly low bar, but even bare nips shock the Victorian sensibilities of prudish conservatives. As a society, we have a problem with the female body and its regular functions. And if we aren’t disgusted with the female body, we feel entitled to it if it’s revealing at all, because women are obviously asking for it if they’re topless. These shocking forms of protests bring the heart of the message front and center: Get the fuck over it, get the law away from my body, and you should stay away from my body until I say so.

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[Image: Two topless women with “our sexuality is not an invitation” painted on their chests. Image from Rory Banwell]

Similar shock can be found in racial inequality protests. If die-ins don’t put a face of humanity on police brutality problems, I don’t know what do. Other than, of course, actual videos of police officers applying brutality. These videos are offensive to me (and, of course, the fact that these videos were so ridiculously easy to find). That’s the point. For the longest time, the black community has been speaking out and the words have often fallen upon deaf ears. But upon the advent of dashcams and omnipresent cell phone cameras it becomes far more difficult to ignore the plea.

Offense can be used for good or for evil

I anticipate a flood of people calling foul for focusing on noble causes like protests and ignoring coddled millennials being outraged merely at certain media for offensive content. I agree this is can be a problem, though not exclusive to the social justice crowd (keep in mind One Million Moms, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, American Family Association, or any organization that has “family” in the name, really). Again, though, it’s not usually the case that someone states that something is wrong simply because it is merely offensive. If that is indeed the case, by all means, call them out if that’s what they’re saying. But perhaps listen to what someone is saying before making that judgment. If someone criticizes a cartoon or a guy on TV, maybe they’re not upset because it’s shocking or obscene, maybe it’s because it’s simply wrong.

Bigoted attitudes effect how people are treated. We know that LGBTQ people are killed at an alarming rate, and that can often be due to how they are perceived in the general culture: as things not worth living. People of color are portrayed as lazy, poor women as “welfare queens”, and such portrayals contribute to perpetuating their injustices. If the culture thinks trans people are some silly joke, then the culture will not care when they are murdered, because they view them as simply not human. This is why making everyone the butt of a joke is not fair by necessity. If you lived in 1943 and skewered Jews or Japanese Americans in a comedy act, you were actively perpetuating the extreme violations to human dignity and rights they were going through. You were supporting the status quo. This is where “punching down vs. punching up” is invoked. This is not an absolute guideline, the marginalized are by no means always in the right, and nobody is above questioning. But before you punch down with a joke, question yourself as well to determine whether what you’re going to say perpetuates inequality, or question if the joke needs to be said at all.

I’m not interested in being a buzzkill, though, I laugh at almost everything, dark or otherwise. Comedy should stand on its own merit, and shouldn’t require anyone to defend it. Furthermore, reject the notion that if it’s obscene or offensive, that it is necessarily opposed to social justice. Shows like  Bojack Horseman and Orange is the New Black are two popular comedic shows that have utilized dark and depressing humor for progressive purposes. I am also reminded of a popular secular podcast the Scathing Atheist, which has made light of what Planned Parenthood could have been selling their baby parts for (lampshades and kebabs are mentioned), and made a top ten list of puppy rape analogies. At the same time, the showrunner considers their highest compliment one that states that the show contains no misogyny, and all the hosts proudly wear feminism on their sleeves. Obviously such content isn’t for everyone, but even if those types of jokes aren’t ones you can stomach doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting for noble causes. Break down the barrier between offense and progressive movements like feminism and BLM.

I agree with Matthew’s earlier statement that social justice needs free speech. I don’t think we live in a world yet where free speech is actually in danger, and that goes for offense and shock. College campuses are frequented by 18-foot tall banners of fetuses and preachers are allowed to shout out “You deserve rape” at students, and they continue to be able to do so. They maintain the right to speak out and offend. Those that stand against social progress do not own offense though, it is ours to use as well. It’s a tool that can be used for good or for evil. Do not think that because there is a cultural perception that “social justice warriors run and hide every time they feel uncomfortable” that you have to behave that way as well.

And for those who criticize the secular people who are social-justice minded, consider that it’s not just that someone is “offended” when you get backlash. They may be offended, they may not, but it is irrelevant. I don’t know how many times I’ve been shut down from a conversation and dismissed as “just being offended” when I’ve never even brought it up. Don’t fall into the same trap the religious right falls into and mischaracterize our stance. By doing that, you shut down conversation in the same way that SJWs are characterized as doing (and will admittedly do in many circumstances). Our criticism is also part of our free speech, backlash does not violate your freedom to speak either, no matter how extreme you may think the “outrage brigade” is. Let’s sit down together, have a conversation, shock and offend each other’s worldview in a productive way so that we both become stronger in the end.

*I would recommend listening to Eli Bosnick’s appearances on the Atheistically Speaking and Dogma Debate radio show. Eli discusses some of these concepts with the hosts of their respective shows, where his ideas are given a healthy and critical look, debate, and discussion. Like Eli, I think a lot of these concepts are largely misunderstood in the general media and everyday conversation and deserve rigorous conversation without name-calling from all sides.


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