Cancel culture, gender pronouns and political correctness are terms synonymous with the postmodern age. Never before has civilization been more conscious of offensive attributes. Some social commentators might argue that people have become too easily offended, others might suggest that censorship still has a long way to go. Tolerance for different cultures, religions, races and beliefs has become palpable. The incessant battle between freedom of speech and censorship is raging in full vigour.
The ability to feel offended is a sentient quality; it’s a quality that corroborates with emotional awareness, and being mindful of offensive behavior is conducive to a harmonious society. Intolerance for expressions that are “truly” offensive is a progressive policy. Things that are truly offensive include mindless bullying, child porn and rude manners. Nobody could disagree that some such things are truly offensive, however there are and has been many offensive subjects throughout history whose offensive nature seems contestable when called into question. Could it be that some of the things that are deemed to be offensive really aren’t so offensive after all?
Hair – the residual protein that grows on your head (unless your bald) – has long been a subject of frightful outrage in Western culture. So offensive can hair be that it’s styling requirements have been written into the rule books of many important societal establishments such as schools and workplaces. Coiffures that include features such as colourful dye and unconventional dressing have been known to horrify their beholders. Radical hairstyles worn by subcultural groups such as mods, rockers and goths have been regarded as symbols of dangerous rebellion ( https://youtu.be/QDogh7J1-5s ).
Still to this day (in Ireland) it would not be surprising to find parents that would have an apoplectic fit at the thought of their teenage children sporting free-spirited hairdos; such an attitude was not uncommon in recent history.
In South Africa in 2016 protests were sparked from a school ban on Afro-textured hair ( https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/31/south-african-students-speak-out-ban-afro-hair-pretoria-school?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other ). In fact censure surrounding Afro-textured hair is such a vast study that Irish-Nigerian author and broadcaster Emma Dabiri has published a book pertaining to it; her book is titled Don’t Touch My Hair.
For all the mayhem that it’s caused hair has never actually done anything violent or conniving to anybody. In its most offensive state it’s merely lifeless fluff which enables its proprietor some scope for creative expression; much like children’s colouring pencils and musical instruments.
Hair is not the only naturally occurring protein of the human body that offends. The body itself – the skin – in its nude form is so horribly offensive that generous exposure of it is a criminal act in most corners of the world.
Islamic States seem to be most fearful of the human body, particularly so when it’s of a female dimension. Although attitudes to skin exposure are becoming much more liberal, in the Arab world countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia still impose relatively strict clothing laws. In forward-looking Tunisia in 2013 there was public outcry when a 19 year old girl posted topless pictures of herself on the internet; this led to Muslim spokespersons calling for her to be executed ( https://news.sky.com/story/amina-topless-tunisian-feminist-threatened-10449434 ).
Censoring nudity when it’s presented in a sexually inappropriate format is unequivocally justified, but what about nudity that’s not transparently revolting? What is it that’s so offensive about a nude body that prompts us to issue warnings (example: viewer discretion is advised) when it appears on television? Why are people so offended by the idea of a woman breastfeeding her baby in public? Would it really be intolerably offensive if Action Man had a penis or if Barbie had nipples?
Cannabis (and other drugs) has offended the world to the point of invoking never-ending bloodshed. Censorship and criminalization are the means by which society subdues its most offensive dangers; the roots of criminalizing cannabis stem from Mexicans immigrating to the United States in the early 20th century ( https://www.history.com/news/why-the-u-s-made-marijuana-illegal ).
When Mexicans immigrated to the US in the early 20th century they brought with them the custom of using cannabis as a leisurely relaxant. This led to American authorities promoting the idea that cannabis gave its users superhuman strength and violent tendencies. As cannabis use spread through African American culture it became accepted that smoking pot was driving people crazy and causing black men to rape white women; this belief was supported by the 1936 movie Reefer Madness. Eventually cannabis grew so offensive that all-out war was declared on it as part of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs policy (1971).
In 2020 cannabis is still a highly offensive subject. Even in countries that are seen as liberal (Ireland, Australia etc) penalties for contravening cannabis laws include lengthy terms of imprisonment. Does it deserve such a notorious criminal status though?
Unlike alcohol nobody has ever died of a cannabis overdose. If put to a democratic vote no right-minded young person would vote in favour of upholding laws that were founded on racism for the sake of incriminating people that are no threat to society. The only cohort that would feel a hurtful pinch if cannabis were to be decriminalized are criminal drug gangs (and maybe law enforcement) because they are the only faction of society that profit from controlled substances.
Thus one must ask what are the most appallingly offensive qualities of cannabis; is it the easing of ills in patients with cancer and motor neurone disease? Is it the peaceful hippie lifestyle? Or is it the unnecessary legislation?
In the English language certain words are considered offensive. Some swear words such as the “n word” and other racial slurs are obviously inappropriate. According to Ofcom (the UK’s telecommunications regulator) some of the most offensive words/phrases prohibited from daytime TV include “beaver” (slang for female genitalia) and “bum boy” (slang for homosexual man).
However recent scientific research has proved that swear words may not be as bad as people think they are. In fact, scientific research has shown that swear words can be a good thing when it comes to endurance tests and certain social activities ( https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/01/science-swearing-profanity-curse-emma-byrne/ ). When a group of people are comfortable expressing swear words amongst each other it can serve as an indicator of how much trust is shared within that group.
Not only do swear words have proven scientific benefit, they are also emblems of free speech, and some would argue that freedom of speech is a democratic entitlement that should be cherished. Bearing this in mind one must wonder would the world really be a better place if Fairytale of New York was banned for its offensive wording?
As cultures and attitudes evolve things that are considered offensive can evolve into things that are not so offensive. Acknowledging history demonstrates that sometimes people are but amateurs and not experts when it comes to judging the difference between things that are and are not offensive.
Many religious Christians preach against violence and yet they fail to see the offensive violence in the image of a murdered Jesus Christ rotting away on a crucifix.
Many preachers of equal rights fail to realize that the luxuries they enjoy (clothes, computers, mobile phones etc) offend their dearest values because many such luxuries are the fruits of inequality and modern slave labour.
When it comes to the evolving landscape of offensive things it might be wise to stop and ask every once in a while “just how offensive are these things that cause so much offense?”