How important is it to be politically correct? Should people be condemned for saying offensive things publicly? How publicly? How does one evaluate whether a certain instance of offense being taken is fair and when one is just too easily offended? What jokes are okay to make? What symbols are acceptable to publicly present? When is it acceptable to call for something to be taken down because of a means by which it is offensive to a certain community?
These are questions that have suddenly become very relevant recently in the US, and this becomes a particular problem when something that is offensive to one group of people is an item of common discourse or important cultural symbol for another group of people. Thus, if one simply decides to arbitrate on offense by subjective means, one is merely asserting that one group of people’s feelings matter more than another group of people’s. Additionally, if we simply condemn and discourage anything that is offensive to anyone, we would generally end up with nothing, because most anything one could talk about offends someone out there. (Hopefully, you’ve at least once if not over and over again witnessed someone taking a completely mundane action that you were sure was completely innocent and gotten shocked that it turned out someone actually took offense at it.)
From this, one could say that someone needs a good reason with which they are able to explain that they find something offensive. But now we have merely passed the burden of arbitration onto the problem of evaluating the goodness of a reason. The amount by which different people react and the amount by which they are offended by different things are vastly different, even if these are different members of the same community targeted by a deemed-offensive statement or action.
It would be foolhardy to attempt to find reasonable objective axioms by which all cases of offense can be accurately categorized as “yeah, what the fuck” or “oh, come on”, or even to find anything close to a universal comparator of cases to confidently decide which of two things are more offensive. But certainly some insults, some jokes, and some signals are more offensive than others. If symbols are references to movements against a group of people, references to systematic killing against a group are more offensive than references to only marginalization against a group. (The second is still bad, but is very reasonable to compare as not as bad as the first.) But we mustn’t just use what we think to evaluate offensiveness, because as mentioned above, not everyone thinks like us, and this particularly hints that there may be things we think are normal but can be quite defensibly described as offensive.
Indeed, many languages, like English, are actually imbued with terms that were crafted by people long ago to be derogatory to a group of people but that were sinisterly planted to reach common usage and seem normal. If person A is aware of historical offensive context that person B is not, then when person A publicly points out that person B is being offensive via usage of a term, this is unfortunate for both sides: person A has been offended, and person B just did something (s)he in good faith thought was innocent but had to suffer social backlash for it. And even when knowledge is evened out, people could still disagree on how offensive something is, and expression of this disagreement could really escalate grudges against a person. Although person A shouldn’t have to fear educating person B about why something is offensive, being too easily called out in the presence of person A may lead person B to be uncomfortable with interacting with person A.
There comes yet another question about when requesting that something that honors a historical figure that took actions or made statements against a particular group is reasonable. This is particularly problematic when such a person has done great things to help other groups of people. I personally find that there’s really good arguments both that one should lower or raise one’s standards for the level of offense past which ideas and honorings are unacceptable. I find that I’m generally okay with people talking with levels of strictness on offensiveness anywhere along the spectrum, as long as one’s consistent. It bothers me that a lot of people seem to have peculiar priorities on what should be considered offensive, that is, yell at one thing for being very offensive but not caring anything at all about something that seems quite clearly more offensive. In such a situation, one needs to make a case for a reasonable viewpoint in which the second is more offensive than the first.
Enough of talking in the abstract. It is probably much clearer to give an example.
Many things in America are named “Columbus” or “Columbia” (the second comes from the first). (Sometimes, this is even the land of America itself.) A whole lot of things, actually, more than honoring a disturbing number of other things. And for what? These things are named after Christopher Columbus, often celebrated in the United States as the discoverer of America. This is profoundly false, and by profoundly, I mean by many, many layers. If “America” refers to the United States, then it fails as a fact because Columbus actually never reached land that is now the United States. But taking “America” to mean the continent, however one defines “continent”, Columbus isn’t even the first European to make it to America, but more importantly, Native Americans have inhabited the continent for centuries before, and saying that Columbus was the discoverer of America implicitly states that one believes that Native Americans are beings not worthy of being able to discover or have the credit to discover, which is dehumanizing if not worse.
But who was Christopher Columbus? Let’s start with a diary entry that he wrote upon first contact with Native Americans.
“They….brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things….They willingly traded everything they owned….They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane….They would make fine servants….With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
This is the type of person Columbus was: one who sees in an innocent person an enslavable person. In initial years having the Natives as slaves he forced them to mine him gold, and mutilated and executed those that failed to do so. Many of course failed, because Columbus made up to himself the idea that the islands he happened upon contained gold. He also forced many natives as young as 9 years old to be sex slaves for his men. But his ultimate work? Initiating the genocide of the Taino, a people that actually eventually died out. Columbus, unlike Ismail Enver, Adolf Hitler, Yahya Khan, or Pol Pot, began an actually successful wiping out of an ethnicity.
So I think that everything that is named after this person, one of the most toxic humans to have lived on this planet, should be required to change its name to something honoring a better person. (This is not hard, because simply randomly choosing another human being who has lived to name the thing after honors a better person with probability approximately 1.) Every Columbus and every Columbia we have, unless named after someone or something else, is a dedication to a person who symbolizes racism, xenophobia, and numerous crimes against humanity including genocide, and we ought to be far, far past this.
(I imagine some of you are probably wondering if I actually have this view in real life rather than just presenting a case for the purpose of this post. The answer is ‘yes’. I think there can be convincing arguments against, and as I mentioned prior, I’m okay with positions nearly anywhere along the spectrum of how ruthlessly one should condemn the offensive as long as one’s consistent. What I’m definitely sure of, though, is that there are way too many ways in which the United States honors Christopher Columbus, a man of far more vice than virtue, and at least some of these ways are seriously due for getting cut down.)
And here are my points: if you think that this is ridiculous, but think that something else is offensive enough that you would support its bringing down, you should ask why you support that but don’t support this. Specifically, you need to make an argument for why you believe what you find offensive is worse than celebrating a genocidal megalomaniac. (Or otherwise you’d need to be making an argument about why some people’s feelings are worth more than others’.) Also, it may have completely shocked you that someone is reacting to Christopher Columbus this negatively. And if it did, maybe this helps clarify the feeling of shock that something is offensive. It is very easy to accidentally look past another’s perspective in the socially mine-rich subject of offense.