I’m trying to remove the word “offense” from my vocabulary when talking about sexism, and I think it would be good if we all did. Here’s why.
When we talk about offense, we are talking about a person’s reactions:
- “She was offended.”
- “Some people just get offended so easily.”
- “I think you have to be careful not to take offense at every little thing.”
- “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
There’s a reason why Wikipedia gives that last one as the textbook example of the non-apology apology. It’s not a real apology because it focuses on the offended person’s reaction, not on the action that the first party took to cause it.
So let’s talk about action:
- “He acted kind of creepy.”
- “They created a hostile environment.”
- “He implied that women can’t program.”
And, of course, a better apology would apologise for the actions: “I’m sorry I acted creepy,” not “I’m sorry you were offended.”
Like I said, this is something I’m working on, and I think it’s really helping me express myself better around some of the incidents that have occurred recently in the tech community. One of the tools I use to move from a reactive “offense” statement to an action statement is simply to replace the word “offended” in the sentence with something more specific: marginalised, belittled, stereotyped, frustrated, humiliated, threatened, patronised, silenced, intimidated, misrepresented, etc.
It genuinely was not my intention to cause offense. People may be driven by personal choice or cultural background to take offense at any number of things, of course, but I think there is always a clear difference between trying to offend people vs people choosing to take offense. My view is that offending someone is walking up to them and saying: “You suck, your code sucks and your partner’s code sucks!”
That is not what I did in my talk. In the case of my talk, people knew what to expect, they *picked* the talk, and were warned by the organizers before I started that I would be using imagery potentially offensive to some. The topic of my talk was obvious, and I would have hoped that people who were likely to be offended would have simply chosen not to attend my talk or read my slides on the internet.
So, Matt’s saying that it’s the offended people’s problem that they were offended. But let’s move away from “offense” and think about some other adjectives that could describe people’s reactions:
- marginalised, because the talk was aimed at the majority (straight men) and ignored the presence of others outside of that group.
- uncomfortable, because people in the room are suddenly thinking about women as sexual objects.
- excluded from the technical community: “If you don’t like porn, you shouldn’t attend conferences” is a too-often-heard refrain.
So rather than saying, “Some people were offended,” we could do a simple adjective substitution and say, “Some people felt uncomfortable, marginalised, and excluded.” Now we’re getting somewhere. While “offense” happens largely inside someone’s head, exclusion (to take an example) is more external. So how did someone come to feel excluded? Well, because someone tried to exclude them! And who did that? Matt Aimonetti! So now we’ve got from “Some people were offended by the CouchDB talk” to “Matt Aimonetti tried to exclude some people from his CouchDB talk.” If he were to rework his blog post, instead of saying:
It genuinely was not my intention to cause offense.
he could say:
It genuinely was not my intention to marginalise or exclude anyone from my talk or from the Ruby community, nor to make them feel uncomfortable.
Sure, it’s longer, but the rest of his two paragraphs of blaming people for feeling offended can be removed entirely. The focus shifts to Matt’s actions, and — if he truly didn’t intend to do those things — how he can avoid them in future.
Another use case: we often hear that people are “just looking for excuses to be offended”. What does that mean? Does it mean that people are “just looking for excuses to be belittled, humiliated, intimidated, and misrepresented”? If we substitute more specific terms there, we suddenly see how nonsensical it is. Who the hell looks for ways to have those things happen to them? Someone performs some action which belittles, humiliates, intimidates, or misrepresents people; the fact that people notice and comment on it does not mean that they were “looking for” those actions to occur.
So let’s stop focusing on reactions, and start talking about actions instead.