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Being offended - is there any harm in it?

How can you be offended by art? It’s inanimate. Would you be offended by a rock that looks like something you might be offended by? What is the purpose of being offended? Will it make the rock go away? Will someone have to put a sheet over it for your lifetime?

Should you be suspicious of the underlying reason when someone claims that they are offended?

What is the motive of a person saying they are offended. Is it controlling or bullying? A novel like Trainspotting would not get published now as publishers self censor. Restraint due to the fear of causing offence is now common to the point that it is unhealthy. There was an exhibition of degenerate art in 1937 which presented 650 works of art, confiscated from German museums as a denunciation of modern art. The works included paintings by Chagall, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Picasso. Then the architect of control was known; now it the amorphous social media and it’s powerful manipulators.

The programme raises the issue of third party offence. This is well known to naturists, who in the past had to put up with the ‘off duty policeman’ syndrome, whereby the decision to arrest was made on whether someone could have been offended, rather than that a complaint had actually been made. So being offended becomes a third party idea where no one in actual fact was offended. Nowadays, having raised the issue in the media, other people take up the offence as if it was their own experience. It is reported as fact and debate thereby discouraged.

The fictional Titania McGrath inhabits social media looking for things to be offended about. It’s supposed to be comedy! Being offended gets you noticed. Social media seems to have become a game where you score points by creating a following and for some reason larger followings are better. Educated debate plays no role.

So what is wrong with being offended? It’s a perfectly understandable emotion, but we should take a grown up approach and take the responsibility to deal with it ourselves. Often this will simply be to distance oneself from the experience that offends you. I would note that it’s not always possible. For instance, if you are offended by beggars in the street, being offended and vocalising it will not remove the problem and you may not be able to distance yourself from those streets. You may need to consider whether the emotion is purposeful, or merely like arachnophobia – spiders in the UK cannot actually harm you.

The topic of commercialism and having the right opinions to fit in is raised. Naturists find this too. We have to pay the cost of being isolated from a venue’s normal customers (in case any of them might be offended). This goes as far as not having the right to advertise a naturist event without prior written permission. The programme raises the interesting point that social activists seek to control culture and as a result this determines what is potentially commercial. It seems that no attempt is being made to control the unequal economic power that exists in society. You are not permitted to hold a public opinion that highly inequitable distribution of wealth is offensive.

So it’s an interesting program that touches on many important ideas for our social media controlled times – far from enhancing democracy it is a breeding ground for authoritarianism. One might say that one of the purposes of art is to be offensive. An individual can then determine whether there is any rationality in being offended by any particular issue. Above all one can decide if simply reinforcing someone else’s idea of offence is furthering a debate or simply a means of ingratiation. It’s so simple to hit the retweet button that perhaps we are not aware of the important underlying issue in the action.

For a naturist the programme offers no enlightenment. The body taboo became a cultural issue sometime in the last 500 or so years and shows no sign of ebbing in spite of the wide availability of pornography. Naturists, unlike artists and comedians, do not seek to be offensive. Simply being naked is considered to be offensive without any associated statement or action. Curiously being naked is an acceptable form of giving offence in the form of a naked protest. Whilst English law does not make nudity illegal, there is considerable opacity given the absence of the right to be naked that whether an offence has been committed in any given case becomes a matter of opinion. Nudity is permitted only by exceptions within the laws designed to prohibit it. So a naturist has no certainty that if someone expresses offence by his or her being naked, that there will be no penalty to pay. Traditionally naturists have hidden away and been careful about who to admit to their clubs for fear of attracting attention, ostracism or worse.

There is an interesting podcast on freedom of speech - should we have it but restrain ourselves from using it where the intention is to offend others?. If offensive behaviour is permissible, then it needs to be avoidable and should not harm, but how do we determine harm? Should we be in the pursuit of happiness exclusively, or should we seek out challenges as also beneficial.?

Exactly why things offend us is still a matter of debate. That we have a strong sense of disgust seems likely to be linked, as does a sense of embarrassment, which we fear could lead to exclusion. Above all perhaps it is fear of the unknown. Just what lies behind the gates to a naturist club? What can particularly be seen from comedy is that what is deemed offensive changes over time. If it is not just a cultural attribute, then what offends an individual also can change with experience.

Any naturist will explain that simply being naked is not offensive – does anyone have the right to condemn others merely for their appearance? In certain circumstances this would be regarded as discrimination. It is difficult to see how homo sapiens could exist if the naked body is fundamentally offensive, given that for much of our evolution clothes that covered the body did not exist. Research indicates that any embarrassment caused by being naked wears off in a short time if everyone else is nude. Perhaps naturism will accepted if third party offence is seen for what it is and if those who think they should be offended actually challenge themselves. Naturists need to make safe environments for people to put themselves to such a test. The Naked Heart Walk, for instance, will provide such an environment. .

I think of being offended like being scared. We all fear being scared, yet a good proportion of people put themselves in the position to be ‘safely’ scared on a fairground ride or a bungee jump. Being offended is a way of dealing with the unexpected and the fact that people do not always behave as expected and perhaps we need to practise that. After all is there any harm in it?


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