In which we blog about the marvellous intricacies of writing and editing.

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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Madness in Copywriting, Part One: The Redundancy of Offence

Every so often, you'll see a story like this pop up in the paper: 

And reliably, as soon as the weary sub-editor hits Publish and the story goes live, the tired protests over oversensitivity, political correctness and freedom of speech are wheeled out for some air: We can't do anything in case it offends a minority, it's just a joke, there are bigger problems in the world than a card, don't you miss the good old days when we could say anything and we didn't have to say 'sanity-challenged', etc.

As someone who does live with mental health problems, I'm not offended by this card. I'm deeply saddened and I'm concerned that it's been so casually tossed out there to make money from laughing at people with bipolar. But I'm not offended. Why not?

1. Offence is a very insular concept. To say one is offended is to say "this insults my worldview". Removing the problem from a social context allows a company to reduce the complaint to a few isolated voices. It also attributes a personal stake for the complainant in the situation changing, and while this may be true, it's not a strong position to argue from. Better to frame the debate in terms of the real risk to a broader group.

2. What does 'offence' even mean? It conjures images of sour-faced individuals posing for the local newspaper with their arms folded, in front of a graffiti penis. Since most companies produce their content to emotionally appeal to consumers, is it not better to point out how hurtful and triggering the sight of such a card might be, and indeed how potentially damaging to an already vulnerable group of people?

3. To express that something causes you offence allows the offending entity to pigeonhole you, and reduce your complaint down to a symptom of an agenda. Mocking bipolar only hurts bipolar people, after all! In the car crash of Twitter replies that issued forth from the Joy account regarding the lithium cards, we encountered such gems as:

If thine right eye offend thee, and all that.

4. It is remarkably easy to ignore or write off 'offence' as a concept, and therefore ignore the very real misery brought about by a thoughtless or cruel action. Think of the passive-aggressive grievance buffer of "I'm sorry you feel that way." See this (presumably non-bipolar) tweeter's chipper defence of a vulnerable corporate entity against the tyranny of Twitter.

The Fry quote is interesting, if problematic (like the man himself), and I can't help feeling it's unfinished. To express being offended is not "a whine". It's simply an ineffective, official-sounding way of saying "That did not feel right to me, and I desperately want it to stop." We need to stop using "I am offended" as a way of avoiding pinpointing exactly what it is that is causing the pain. Once we have the root cause, shucked of its rhetorical casing, we can begin to reword in a more socially aware way.

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