It’s true. Nobody has the right to not be offended. All those sexist images and word choices and explanations for gender differences that women in the skeptical movement point to as offensive when they are asked why they are so mad about stuff… well, nobody promised those women that they could go through life–particularly not through life in the skeptical community–without being offended. There’s not some kind of Orwellian Freedom From guarantee going on that they’ll never have to experience unpleasantness or have their feelings hurt. It’s ridiculous to even suggest such a thing. They don’t want to be offended, well, that’s part of life. And if they choose to interpret images and statements as offensive, well, they’ve done that to themselves. They are responsible for their own reactions.
And it’s also true that the people who create the “offensive” (because offensiveness is subjective, right? so the scare quotes are necessary) content are perfectly within their rights to express themselves however they want to express themselves, and that the freedom of expression sometimes mean that people get mad, but that just because someone might be upset by what you say doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it. I mean, fine art! And Jonathan Swift! Jonathan Swift offended all kinds of people, but he was doing important social commentary, and he’s part of the literary canon now, and if he didn’t write because he was nervous about hurting people’s feelings, well, Irish people and oppressive English people and colonialism. And maybe if you can’t handle being offended–if being offended is causing huge problems of your own making for you–you should probably just leave skepticism altogether, because thick skin and shit just got real and tensions inherent to public discourse and stuff.
In summary: People in the skeptical movement can say whatever sexist thing they want because they have the right to express themselves, and if women get offended by it they get offended by it. They shouldn’t expect people to curtail their self-expression just because it makes them personally uncomfortable. That’s not anyone’s problem but the women who choose to be offended. Agreed?
Good. Now we can move on to the crux of the issue: So what?
So what if women are offended by something you’ve said or posted online? It’s not your problem. It’s their problem! Unless…
- …a woman you’ve offended is in a position to criticize you (and maybe your whole group) to a wide audience.
- …a lot of women in your group are offended enough to leave.
- …it affects your ability to attract new members.
- …it undercuts your reputation as potential agents of social change. (Why should someone outside the skeptical movement believe you can make their lives better if you don’t seem to want to help your own members?)
- …it creates obstacles within the group by causing friction between people who might otherwise work together to achieve common goals.
- …you’ve hurt the feelings of someone you care about or respect.
Is your goal as a skeptic participating in the skeptical community to generate bad buzz for the skeptical viewpoint, to drive away skeptics from your organization, to hamper recruitment, and to be ineffective agents of social change? To spend a lot of time bickering about who “ought” to be offended and insisting that every fool thing that passes through your mind is important to utter? That posting pictures of women with big boobs is as valid a part of the skeptical experience as designing a pro-vaccine campaign?* That it’s vital to argue until everyone agrees that freedom of speech includes the right to drive women out of your group with sexism instead of creating engaging and welcoming spaces for skeptics to network across cities and nations? That it’s more important to take a philosophically pure stance than protect the feelings of your friends and allies? Then blowing off people who are hurt by what you do and say probably doesn’t matter much. But if you are trying promote some Skeptical Way of Being and encourage the public at large to consider how they make decisions and teach critical thinking from a scientific and/or secular perspective, and you still try to blame women for taking offense when you’ve done or said something hurtful, you are not going to make much progress.
*I’ll spare you the side commentary that involves irony and complaints about post-modernism, but I’m tittering to myself about it. I am tittering.
If “being a skeptic” means anything more to you than engaging in some intellectual exercise, and if you want it to go anywhere socially beyond the insular communities you’ve carefully proscribed, you’re going to have to take women being offended–whether or not they have the right to not be offended–seriously. And you are going to have to act like you care if they are offended (even if you don’t).
And this business of acting shocked and hurt and angry–so angry–when women who are offended do their best to shame you (and maybe your group) to your face and in front of others so that the same stupid thing doesn’t hurt another woman in the future, and when they insist that bystanders who do nothing are enabling sexism and just as much a cause of their problems as the people actively offending them, and generally piss you off with their refusal to not exploit their right to self-expression about how their feelings are hurt and they are going to boycott your event, remember that you don’t have the right to not be offended either. You can put up with it or get out of the skeptical movement, too. Fight back if you want–claim your right to be sexist and petty!–but don’t tell them to shut up about being offended. That’s hypocrisy, and nobody likes a hypocrite.