see no evil, hear no evil, read no evil…
I think we need to start distinguishing between “offended” and “uncomfortable”. They aren’t always the same thing, but increasingly I notice them being conflated.
Most recently, there was a fantastic post at The Good Men Project called “I’m Stark Naked: deal with it”, in which a totally average looking guy talks about his body image. The post is illustrated with beautiful, not-particularly-titillating nudes of the writer. As my friends on Facebook posted and reposted it (it’s a great article) they often added, “NSFW, contains nudes” or “don’t read this if you will be offended by full male nudity”.
Which got me thinking. NSFW certainly, unfortunately. It looks like art to me, but your boss might not see it like that. If your boss is the kind of boss with whom NSFW doesn’t apply, you know it–in some places, everything is safe for work. Otherwise, better wait ‘till you get home.
But offended, now there’s an idea worth considering more closely. The definitions of obscenity, on which definitions of both pornography and legality are often based, include this idea of offending the general morality. Offending–not just making uncomfortable.
At one time so few people were accepting of bodies, of visible sensuality, of public sexuality that the two were probably very nearly synonymous. But I think increasingly this distinction is important, even critical, to the public discourse.
We are moving toward increasing acceptance of diversity. Race, gender roles, gender identity, sexual orientation, family and relationship structure–any situation where we have commonly understood that some people could and other people couldn’t do things has been opened up for other possibilities. And as we move toward more and different stuff in our everyday lives, the difference between what is offensive and what is simply uncomfortable is what makes the space for those new things possible. When an idea or a behavior moves from “offensive” to “uncomfortable” then we can begin to expose ourselves to it, understanding that the next step–the transition to comfort–will only happen with that exposure.
When people are too far from acceptance of something then any exposure, no matter how gentle, only strengthens their resistance. At that stage they can’t be around it; they have to hear about it without direct contact, buffered by the third-person perspective of a book, an article, a conversation. Direct contact would make them dig in and hold on. It feels like too much of a threat.
But when we have heard about it enough we begin to ease from offended toward uncomfortable. The difference is capacity to tolerate. And when we can tolerate the formerly offensive thing, even if it still makes us feel uneasy, that’s when we’re ready to move to the next step.
Of course, if you would be offended, you shouldn’t look. It won’t help you or anyone. But if it would merely make you uncomfortable, perhaps you should consider it. Maybe you’re not ready to see some guy who looks like your next door neighbor standing innocently in front of his mirror.
But maybe you are.