On being offensive.

To the long, long list of Newfangled Things Whose Popularity I Don’t Understand must be added another: Twitter. I signed up a couple days ago because my company, to promote its new online reputation management service, recently created a Twitter account, and it may soon be my responsibility to “tweet” our “followers”.

It’s not a responsibility I look forward to assuming. But anyhow. On Twitter the other day I noticed a tweet from a friend of a co-worker concerning the Spokesmonster cartoons. I can’t find it now, but it said something like, “That’s the funniest, most offensive ad campaign ever!”

What does it mean, this word “offensive”? What does this person mean when he writes that the cartoons are both funny and offensive? Is he actually offended by them? I doubt it, or he probably wouldn’t find them funny. I assume he means that some other unenlightened clown out there probably finds them offensive.

But where are these unenlightened clowns and exactly how are they offended? This is a question I’ve asked before, and I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer. When the first Spokesmonster cartoon, for a brief moment, in an obscure corner of the internet, stirred up a tiny flurry of controversy, it was alleged that the cartoon was offensive. But except for one commenter who declared that he or she, as a proud hillbilly, took objection to the reference to inbred “hill folk”, no-one actually said they were offended. They were outraged on behalf of somebody else.

Then there was the almost-controversy, narrowly averted, that I didn’t quite provoke with a recent blog post. In regard to the third Spokesmonster cartoon, a friend had written to tell me that he found the tone off-putting:

The word “Skankmaster” comes up, which might raise some eyebrows with investors. Annie Anklebiter slithers and hisses at the camera in a threatening way. The Reichschancellor is funny except his voice sounds like a dangerous pedophile. And then Shelby, our main character, snaps at the girl’s finger and bites yours, and you say the F-word.

The next day, alongside a sketch of the Reichschancellor, I posted to the Spokesmonster blog:

I got my co-worker Dave to record the Reichschancellor’s voice. But apparently Dave’s too nice a guy, because his delivery lacked the necessary tone of quiet menace. So I re-recorded the voice myself. A friend said the Reichschancellor “sounds like a dangerous pedophile”. I choose to take that as a compliment.

In my innocence, I thought my meaning would be obvious. I only meant that I took my friend’s comment as a compliment on my voice acting: I was trying to sound creepy, and apparently I had been successful. It has since been pointed out to me that hasty readers might misinterpret “I take that as a compliment” to mean A) that the Reichschancellor was meant to be a pedophile, and that I was flattered that my friend had picked up the reference, or even B) that I was endorsing pedophilia.

I got an email from my boss telling me to take down the pedophilia reference tout de suite; I complied; and that was that. I have no problem with my employers determining what is and isn’t appropriate on a company website. Still, in an email thread with some friends of mine, I argued about the definition of offensive. Some of my friends thought my comment was a mistake because it could be misinterpreted. Others thought that the mere mention of pedophilia violated a taboo, and even if it had been more clearly written, my comment would still have been unacceptable on a promotional blog. One friend suggested that, even if he wasn’t meant to be a pedophile, the character of the Reichschancellor was a bit touchy, because when people think “Reichschancellor” they think “Hitler”, and you shouldn’t crack jokes about Hitler.

Someone else mentioned the message that pops up in StepRep when a search comes back empty: “No results yet! But don’t worry, our worker monkeys are slaving to get you relevant results.” The topic of slavery is a little sensitive, my friend said. Aargh, I replied.

What was missing from all this discussion of offensive subjects was a single person who actually claimed to be offended. Everyone was worried about what someone else might think. Everyone was trying to read the minds of people whose existence they couldn’t be certain of.

An analogy. A record executive gets a tape from a hot new band. (My analogy is set in the distant past, like the 1980s.) He clunks the tape into his stereo and gives it a listen. He hates it. He buzzes his secretary. “This band is fucking terrible,” he says. “Make up a contract. They’re going to be huge.”

If he’s good at his job, the record executive doesn’t need to actually like the acts he signs; he just needs to have an ear for what the chumps will buy. But wouldn’t you put more faith in a record executive who shares his audience’s tastes – someone who actually likes the records he sells?

Like musical taste, offense is a highly personal thing. It’s perfectly good business to worry about what other people are going to think. But I wish people would be more explicit when they say this is offensive.

Do they mean, I am offended?

Or do they mean, The chumps aren’t going to buy this?

M.

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2 Responses to “On being offensive.”


  1. 1 Old Hillbilly January 11, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Well said Michael!

    I think many of us have gone way too far with this “dont offend anybody” stuff. I think we should be able to make fun of ourselves and others as long as we don’t do it out of hate.

    Look at most of the popular sitcoms on TV today. They make fun of everything and most people laugh. I am from Kentucky yet I make fun of hillbillies (including myself).

    Unenlightened clowns are all around us and we have to deal with the opinions of the uninformed all the time.

    Thanks for a good read!

  2. 2 orangeraisin January 12, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Thanks, Old Hillbilly.

    Re the “hill folk” controversy I described above. Up here where I work in Canada, it didn’t occur to anyone that hillbillies were a demographic that we could offend.

    “If they’re on the internet,” one friend observed to me, “then by definition, they can’t be hillbillies.” He thinks of a “hillbilly” as a Hollywood cliché, not as a self-identifying member of an actually existing cultural group.

    I was a little less innocent than my friend: I was aware that “hillbilly pride”, for want of a better phrase, existed. But to me inbreeding and squirrel-eating are just silly stereotypes, no more relevant to real life than curly moustaches on Frenchmen or lederhosen on Germans. It didn’t occur to me that real live people would be hurt by them.

    I think those people were missing the point of the cartoon anyway: the butt of the joke is the narrator, not the monster. But I have to admit that I would never have dared to draw a “coon” monster eating a watermelon, or a Chinese monster with buck teeth and squinty eyes, even though those stereotypes are just as silly, and by the same logic just as harmless, as the Appalachian stereotypes I mentioned above.

    I think we’re approaching the day when black people just laugh off the old “coon” stereotypes the way people with Irish ancestry, like me, laugh off depictions of drunken shillelagh-swinging louts. Obviously we’re not there yet. But I’d prefer if we could all work toward being a little less sensitive, rather than leaping to our keyboards at the first hint of offense.

    Great website, keep it up.

    M.


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