So, the whole taking-offense thing. Y’all kind of felt I sprung that on you out of nowhere, didn’t you? I could tell by the comments. Here’s a little more context for it, in terms of what I’ve been reading and thinking and talking with friends about:
1. The national conversation around bullying. The woman who wrote the essay I posted on Monday is a friend of mine from very long ago, and it is likely that I would have had much worse bullying-induced psychological problems than I already did had I not been friends with her. She managed to make being an outcast feel like being an outlaw. So when she writes “I think self-empowerment, for some people, is a daily struggle,” I remember when it was, for both of us.
2. The question of empowerment versus entitlement. This is a distinction I came up with last week, and that I’m writing about in a November column. Here’s the key parts:
How about, instead of feeling entitled, feeling empowered instead? Entitled people believe they deserve certain things, and if they don’t get them, they lash out, or withdraw, or complain. Empowered people believe they deserve certain things, and if they don’t get them, they do something about it.
All the world’s a stage. When an actor flubs a line in a play, his scene partner doesn’t just stand there, waiting for him to get it right, because she is entitled to get her correct cue. She jumps in and improvises, because she is empowered to do that by her skills and training. That’s what etiquette is for: not teaching us what we are entitled to get, but teaching us how we are empowered to get it.
That’s the kind of thing that when it occurs to you, it’s going to occupy your head for a while.
3. The Evelyn Evelyn controversy. Keeping this as simple as possible, “Evelyn Evelyn” is a musical act/band/character created by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley. Evelyn Evelyn are supposedly conjoined twins (played by Amanda and Jason in a specially-constructed dress and matching wigs) with a lurid backstory. They performed at this year’s Ig Nobels, which is how I found out about all this.
Anyway, a lot of people are very upset about Evelyn Evelyn, and about Amanda’s response to them when they told her how upset they were. It’s a complicated story, and that’s as basic yet honest as I can make it; start with the linkspam and follow the trail from there, if you’re interested.
And I find that, somehow, an impossible conversation. There’s no doubt when you read the words of the people who are offended by Evelyn Evelyn that they are genuinely hurt. And Amanda is saying, in essence, “I realize what I’m doing is hurting you, and I’m going to continue doing it anyway.” You can frame the discussion in lots of ways, but on a basic human level, that is the conversation being had. (And because of the nature of the internet and Amanda Palmer’s fanbase, it is very much a conversation: this isn’t a question of an artist creating a work and a dispassionate critic analyzing it for their own audience.)
I had a conversation like that myself in the past year, a relationship-ending one, because a friend was often hurt by the things I wrote about, and I kept writing about them (although I censored myself more than I realized).
Anyway, those are some of the things that have been floating around my mind regarding the whole concept of taking offense. When people talk/write about taking offense, they usually focus on the nature of the offense. Is endorsing a religious prohibition against homosexuality a personal moral choice, or a public affront? Is Evelyn Evelyn really ableist or not? Is it rude to ask a woman if she colors her hair, Miss Conduct?
I’d like to look away from the question of the offenses themselves, and more at the process of taking offense. How can you do it in a way that leaves you feeling empowered? How do you make the call whether to take your offense public or not? What do you do when you hit a brick wall in discourse? What do you do when you are the offender?