Offensive – what’s that again?

I always begin writing about this topic at various times and then leave it as a draft when I am past the phase of feeling angry enough to rant about it. You know, the concept of “something being offensive to someone”. It is in some ways a sister topic to this one. And then, I found this picture today and decided its about time I put this out there! (Side note: if you love satire and have not checked out someecards.com before, you have missed out on some really awesome cards!)

Offended

I believe that there are essentially some people who are easily offended, some people who are not offended by anything. Most people are less often offended by most things. It is almost always a highly personal phenomenon rather than a generalized issue. The point I am trying to make is that, more often than not, it is the personality of the person who hears/sees/talks about a topic that causes them to get offended rather than the topic itself. I will further go out on a limb and declare that there are no such things as “offensive topics”, only people who “take offense” to some topics. And this phenomenon of “taking offense” is very personal, changes from person to person and depends on the setting at a given moment.

I have come to this conclusion based on a couple of observations:

1. When someone from a particular group makes fun of the stereotypes of that group itself – it is not considered offensive.

For example, it is “allowed” for Indians to make fun of Indian stereotypes (Example – Russel Peters), African Americans to make fun of African American stereotypes (Example – Tracy Morgan), Latinos to make fun of Latino stereotypes (Example – Mario Lopez), Women to make fun of feminist stereotypes (Example – Whitney Cummings), Jews to make fun of Jewish stereotypes (Example – Jon Stewart) – you get the drift. Infact it is considered funny, endearing and as an ability to laugh at yourself. But the minute someone makes fun of a stereotype that they are not a part of – it is considered offensive. So, it appears that the topic itself (or something just a word/reference) is not offensive, but who says it to whom is what makes it offensive.

2.  Any subject can become offensive depending on the audience

I recently had an argument with an American friend of mine about the SI system. That usual joke about how everyone but America follows the SI system of measurement. He told me that if I said that the mile is not as “good” a measure as a meter, he would consider that as offensive. Ofcourse this was all in jest and there is no such thing as a “good” measure, but still it left me wondering – any contradiction in an argument can be construed as an offensive remark if the person you are arguing with decides to take it as an insult. Which brings me to the third point -

3. Offensive remarks are almost always remarks taken as a personal insult

And what constitutes as an insult differs from person to person. I, like most people I know, can differentiate between an insult to who I am and an insult to things I am associated with. For example – calling me a slut would offend me. But making a joke about the strong smell of Indian masalas would not offend me because to me, that is not a personal insult. This is where this becomes a sister topic. Because, this depends entirely on how each person defines himself/herself. Am I defining myself based on my personality?  Or am I defining myself based on associated elements like nationality, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.,?

Given this is the case, I am always wondering on what basis we censor topics, forums, books, movies, etc., as offensive. Irrespective of what the subject is, if I decide to take something as a personal insult – I will consider such a thing offensive. And anybody can take offense to any topic. So, when Kapil Sibal asks Facebook to remove offensive content, what does he mean exactly? And how does he propose to implement this?

P.S: Just for the record, I am not a chest-thumping liberal and I am not worried about how free speech is lost. I am just curious to understand how “offensiveness” is evaluated.