How I Know When I’m Being Offensive


keeping shut

Sometimes I speak and sometimes I don’t. Every now and then when I speak, I’ll discover I have an unexpected audience. I discover this when one or more people, not having been directly involved in whatever conversation I was having, gasp at something I’ve said. That’s when I understand that I must have said something offensive or taboo.

Example:

One day a friend and I were talking in a kitchen about a woman I knew, whom I had recently run into. I was lamenting my misfortune at running into her because I hated her. I almost never hate anyone. She was an awful person and I couldn’t find anything redeeming about her, which happens to be something I’m very good at doing in general. I felt that she lived off of others while making no effort to participate in improving her life, and in fact seemed to be purposefully making the people around her miserable; I saw her as a leech. While that’s a shitty thing to say, especially for a social worker, let me reiterate that I rarely hate anyone, so I felt ok accepting this one instance of hatred. All my general liking of people should have added up to give me some karmic leeway, is how I saw it.

My friend, who knew the prior details of regarding this woman, nodded sympathetically when I commented, “I mean, if she were dead it wouldn’t be a loss. She doesn’t do anything good for the world.” Gasp. Shit, I’d be overheard and worse, I’d said something gasp-worthy. I reviewed what I’d just said to identify what might have been problematic. “Look,” I explained to my dropper of eaves once I’d figured out the issue, “I’m not saying I wish her dead. I’m just saying if she were dead, it wouldn’t be a loss.”

“Kate, that’s fucked up,” a buddy commented from the peanut gallery.

“Why? Not every life is an improvement on the world. She’s not a good person. If she were dead it wouldn’t be like the world lost something big. Again, I’m not wishing her dead or anything, just saying that if she were.” I knew somehow this was a bad thing to say but I didn’t feel in the wrong. Any ugly truth, maybe, but a truth nonetheless. Can you handle it?

“Isn’t this lady, like, mentally ill?”

“Yes.”

“Then you shouldn’t say that shit! She’s ill!”

Now I was getting pissy. “Yeah, she’s ill, and she’s also an asshole. They aren’t mutually exclusive. She’s ill and a bad person. You think people with mental illness aren’t like other people? They’re all just people, you dick.” Then, having sufficiently turned the tables until I wasn’t the only bad guy in the room, I continued my conversation. But I always remembered from then on not to make the “some people are better when dead” statement without checking my surroundings.

I still don’t think I was wrong, though.

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