We produce our work for our own reasons. Sometimes it is necessary to purposefully offend people in the process. Some artists even enjoy rattling other people’s sensibilities by offending them on purpose. They get a kick out of it. Other times artists offend others through their own ignorance.
I know I’ve done it and I’m pretty confident you have, too. One way or the other, we all offend. And I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing. It’s not comfortable, but I do intentionally expose myself to things I know will stretch my own sensibilities, if for no other reason than because I know I shouldn’t rest on my own convictions without testing them.
Even more so, as artists, we have to be true to our work. We can’t please everybody and we shouldn’t feel obligated to try to do so. We take a risk with every work we produce. We’re going to offend someone over something. We deal with it and take the risk anyway. This is part of what makes us artists—we’re willing to be artists.
On the other hand, as fellow human beings, I believe we do have an obligation to be sensitive to others’ sensitivities. Whenever possible, we need to be respectful of other people’s feelings. This doesn’t mean we don’t purposefully offend others if that’s what our work requires. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy rattling people. But this does mean we should be honest in our approach. And it does mean we should combat our own ignorance.
I’ll give you an example to explain what I mean. My son, who has diagnoses of autism and epilepsy, was talking about something or other and these words popped out of his mouth: “Man, he was a total spaz!” In a non-confrontational manner, I said, “Do you know what that word means?” He looked at me rather blankly. “Spaz. It’s slang that compares someone who is being ‘uncool’ with someone who has cerebral palsy.” My mom chimed in, “It would be like someone making fun of you when you were having a seizure.” “Does that sound like a good thing,” I asked. He shook his head sadly and said, “I won’t say it ever, ever again.” The fact is that he probably will. It takes time and effort to break these linguistic habits we pick up. But becoming aware is the first step to changing our unsavory behaviors.
I hear people use charged language in complete ignorance all the time and they’re not all children. When words become slang, it’s hard to know the word’s original meaning—unless you happen to be one of the people who are hurt by those words. It takes effort to be informed. It takes even more effort to be aware of the ideas that cause harm, regardless of the words we use: ideas like racial minorities being predisposed to law-breaking or that life isn’t worth living if you have a disability. Words and ideas that hurt others pervade our cultures and most people aren’t even aware of them. But, as artists, we have a responsibility to be aware, to be honest, and to be respectful—even when we’re being purposefully disrespectful. It’s a fine line, but it’s one we all can walk, with a few wobbles and mistakes now and then, if we try.