We have had a flurry of cases in the last month where we’ve challenged a newspaper, magazine, or social media site for causing offence. In the case of the Daily Mail, we complained about a headline that claimed a man was turning into an elephant, when he clearly wasn’t – and they changed the headline after we threatened a complaint to the regulator IPSO, and sent our Media Guidelines. Social media site ‘Snapchat’ introduced a new photo tool on their app which gave the appearance of facial palsy – and after complaints from ourselves, Facial Palsy UK and others, they appear to have deleted it.
But such successes seem to come at a price, and raise wider issues. In the Snapchat case, some of our social media followers accused us of being ‘offended by everything’ and said that we need to ‘get a grip’, despite a number of our other followers saying that they were very offended and upset by the facial palsy ‘filter’.
In another story earlier this month, a number of people criticised us for calling for improved psycho-social support for people who have acne. Comments along the lines of, “I had acne as a teenager; didn’t do me any harm” were commonplace. A number said that young people need to ‘get a grip and stop bothering the NHS’. Those who said that the comments were offensive were shouted down, until we intervened.
So whose right is it to be offended? Are we more offended by things today than before? And is that a bad thing? Is it ever wrong to be offended?
Changing Faces is twenty-four years old today and throughout those years we’ve battled long and hard for better understanding of the psychological impact of having a disfigurement, and for the last eight years this has been the focus of our face equality campaign. We have done that because the impact of offensive images, adverts, film characters and comments aren’t something that anyone should have to ‘get a grip’ and ‘deal with’.
No-one would tell a person of colour who’d been the victim of racist abuse to ‘get a grip’, nor would anyone advise a trans person that bullying is a ‘fact of life’. We wouldn’t stand by and ignore a television advertisement that mocked someone in a wheelchair, but one that mimics a facial disfigurement is somehow okay in some people’s eyes, something we should ‘get a grip’ of.
What should we do? We have a responsibility and a duty to stand up whenever a person, a company, an organisation – anyone – uses or mimics disfigurement in a way that’s inappropriate. But should we wait for someone to tell us that they are offended by it? No – the point is that even when such incidents are ‘minor’ they can have a pernicious effect, and cumulatively can cause a great deal of harm. We would be failing in our public duty if we did not challenge discrimination wherever it occurred.
That’s not to say that we should take on everything that is presented to us, either. Recently, one supporter asked us to challenge a major company whose name she found offensive. We judged that it wasn’t offensive on the issue of disfigurement, and so didn’t take it up.
But the common factor in all cases where offence is caused, is that it is completely avoidable and always unnecessary. Subeditors at the Daily Mail could take more care in their headlines to ensure they are factual and accurate. Television commissioning editors could give more thought to the impact the use of words like ‘ugly’ and ‘freak’ can have. Designers of apps and software should give consideration to how their inventions could be misinterpreted or used to bully and insult. Offence is always caused either by choice or by a lack of consideration – and so it doesn’t have to be that way.
And it is never for others to tell someone that they don’t ‘have the right’ to be offended. The internet is awash with tens of thousands of memes to mock people who are offended, all along the lines of, “You’re offended, I don’t care” but many far less polite. We often can’t help feeling offended by something and so we can’t simply ‘get over’ something by being told to do so. It’s far, far easier for the person or organisation causing the offence to avoid doing so in the first place.
Some argue that there are number of things are making us, generally speaking, less tolerant and less forgiving of others, and faster to criticise: the puzzling rise of pay-per-rant controversialists like Katie Hopkins, the increasing vitriol of newspapers like The Sun, the increase in support for anti-refugee policies and parties, the threat of terrorism and fears for personal safety, and the underdog being seen as ‘fair game’ for attack from all sides.
Could all these factors be combining to make us less inclined to show sympathy or empathy for others, and more willing to cause offence? Quite possibly. And that’s why we must stand up to the drip, drip, drip effect of the more minor causes of offence just as much as we would immediately challenge something much bigger and obvious. If we ignore the combined effect when people are deliberately or recklessly causing offence, then the cumulative effect this has on people can be huge.
Don’t be afraid to be offended. Use it as an opportunity to enlighten people*. And if you need our help, you know where we are.
* Katie Hopkins excluded.
Stephen Taylor is PR & Communications Manager at Changing Faces. Viewpoint represents the views of the author and not necessarily of Changing Faces, its staff or trustees.
This article first appeared in the May 2016 edition of Viewpoint, Changing Faces’ monthly email for supporters. Sign up here.