Offending People & Learning Lessons
In October of a last year (2018) I wrote this post called '5 ways to get fat, unhealthy and die young.'
It was a tongue in cheek post that turned those typical '5 ways to improve your health' or '5 lifestyle changes that will make you happier’ type posts on their heads.
It was an attempt on my part to be funny, satirical, and hopefully generate a little traffic (I'm told people like lists but I don't like creating them).
The tips contained within were as follows:
Eat processed food
Don't move (ie. Don't exercise)
I don't think many would disagree that the above are objectively unhealthy behaviours. I simply inverted the standard 'pillars' of health that most health and fitness professionals would recommend and gave it a 'clickbaity' title.
Each entry in the list also had an accompanying photo, with this stock photo (free from pexels.com) acting as the title image:
Then, more recently, I had an idea that I could easily share blog posts in gif format if I condensed the subject matter down into concise enough chunks.
The idea was to use five or so images, each with a snippet of text, that change on 3-4 second intervals.
Naturally the above post just popped straight into my head as a candidate for this experiment, since it was one of my few 'list' style posts.
So I made the gif and shared it with a couple of different online groups (Facebook & Reddit) to get some feedback on the concept.
Well... That decision did not bode well for me.
The post was almost universally derided. I was called smug, condescending, fat phobic, unfunny, insensitive, mean spirited and an 'ablist areshole'.
Honestly, it felt pretty shit.
Based on that one gif a lot of people made a lot of assumptions about me and about the content that I produce for this blog, and they were all pretty bad...
I think a (small) part of why people were so offended by this post is because they had no context. I think any regular readers of this site would probably understand that the post wasn't meant to be 'mean-spirited', but rather a satire on diet culture at large. Generally speaking I try to be non-judgemental here, and hopefully helpful - especially in the health/fitness related posts.
More interesting to me, however, was the personal and extreme nature of a lot of the responses.
For example, there was one guy who suffers from PTSD and is on medication that causes him to gain weight. Another person that responded could barely move from the couch due to a painful spinal injury.
These people felt particularly hard done by because they can't do those things that I infer are the way to a happier longer life.
As far as they were concerned, I was telling everyone that can't exercise, or afford organic food, to go die.
That's why I'm an asshole.
But I don't want anyone to die or have a lower quality of life...
To be honest, most of that had never occurred to me, I just had an idea and went with it. I write two original posts per week and when I have an idea that I consider to be remotely interesting I often just go with it because I need something new.
Sure, maybe it was a poor attempt at satire and not at all funny, but one thing it definitely was not was an attempt to offend or upset people.
Could I have been more thoughtful? Yes, absolutely.
Should I have been? I'm not so sure...
What does it all mean?
In the internet age there is a lot of talk about the offensiveness of things, snowflakes that can't take a joke, hate speech, and social justice warriors.
And thanks to the internet, we also have more exposure to the lives of other than ever before.
What I've noticed with the blog post I mentioned above is that the people that reacted most negatively all responded with extreme scenarios.
So for example, if say you need to move your body to be healthy, someone shouts about the people with no arms and no legs.
If you say that being overweight is unhealthy you will be confronted with stories of people who can't lose weight due to rare metabolic conditions.
(Interestingly no one mentioned chronic narcolepsy as a reason why the 'don't sleep' entry on the list was offensive)
Were the objections valid? Absolutely.
I just don't understand why people would get so offended and upset by it...
The fact of the matter is that most people (myself included) are a bit lazy, eat too much crap food, probably don't sleep as much as they should, and many isolate themselves.
Sure there are outliers, but do they always need to be addressed? It's just a blog post, not a political manifesto.
This is pretty common around other contentious subjects too.
If you question the idea of there being more than two genders you will almost certainly hear all about 'intersex' people (A tiny percentage of people born with both sets of genitalia).
If you say immigrants should not be demonized you will be confronted with a story about that one rapist immigrant that was in the news last year.
It feels like painting pictures with broad strokes is no longer acceptable, and this has negative results on both ends of the spectrum.
As already mentioned, this logic can be used to demonise immigrants or poorer people.
It can be used to judge (even harass) people when they say something thoughtless (we all do and I recommend reading the book 'So you've been publicly shamed' by Jon Ronson).
In general this way of communicating can be used to de-legitimise legitimate statements.
In casual conversation (I'd put my blog in this category), satire and humour (or attempted humour in my case), I feel like it's natural to speak in general terms.
I feel that everyone being constantly vigilant and sensitive to everyone's plight would make everything so complex that we'd barely be able to communicate or operate as a society.
It also feels totally unrealistic. We can't all know everything about everyone's individual circumstances.
The gif I shared wasn't funny, wasn't great satire and was maybe bad judgement on my part... But I'm still amazed at how vociferous the objections to it were.