Today I was publicly told off by a perfect stranger because I said something that some people might find offensive. The lady in question was at pains to reassure me that she herself was not offended, but felt obliged to tell me that what I had said might offend some hypothetical third party who might be listening.
So, I apologised of course, because I'm actually a polite person who doesn't want to go around randomly offending people, but afterwards I couldn't help wondering what I was apologising for.
I clearly wasn't apologising to the lecturing lady. She had reassured me that she wasn't offended, so, no apology necessary. Perhaps I was apologising to others around who may fit the hypothetical third person criteria and therefore might have inadvertently been offended. Or perhaps, and I think this is most likely, I was apologising only because I wanted to make the conversation stop and to say what I really thought would have ruined my friend's baby shower. And that would have offended people!
Because what I really think is this: there are plenty of things in this world to get offended about - I'm thinking about children dying daily because of lack of clean water while we are in a state of trauma because our wheelie bins don't get emptied often enough, for example - and a casual, semi-thoughtless remark shouldn't fall into that category. As human beings, are we not capable of choosing not to take offence where offence obviously wasn't intended?
I think that words are just words. Attitudes are something different. Words do not always accurately represent underlying attitudes. Rather they can represent levels of education, social background, different contexts, slips of the tongue. A person can speak with the most honeyed lips and yet have a filthy attitude just under the surface. Similarly, a person can used an ill-advised expression and yet completely lack prejudice in their beliefs and deeds.
I think that if people are genuinely personally offended, they should say so and ask for an apology, but if people are not offended, they should not presume to speak for others.
So, what did I say to cause all of this? I said, "Sorry about that . . . my brain's gone a bit mental today." Apparently, many people who suffer from mental illness would find this offensive.
I don't know if this is true. Maybe it is. I can't say anything about it because I have never suffered from mental illness - although the lady who upbraided me can't possibly have known this! I do understand that there is a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice surrounding mental illness. I know people who have suffered from mental illness and have seen them struggle with this in their own lives. Personally, I think that we need to seriously tackle this as a society, and I don't think that getting offended in situations like the one today is going to get that job done.
I happen to know that there were people present when I said that who have suffered from mental illness. If any of them were offended by what I said, then I invite them to come and speak to me themselves and we can talk things over. Other than that, I think it would do us all good to get over ourselves just a little bit and look around us at the incredible injustice and suffering that goes on in the world and perhaps decide to get offended about all of that instead.