I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “offended.” It’s gotten good mileage lately as the controversy over the Confederate and white supremacy monuments continues.
But the word has lost some of its power. Now, people use it in an almost sarcastic fashion about the person claiming the offense, as if he were some kind of fragile hothouse flower who will wilt if exposed to anything he doesn’t like.
If you’re offended by the monument to Jefferson Davis then you’re too sensitive; that’s how the argument goes.
But what if we used a different word, one that maybe reflects the power and depth of the sentiment?
When Americans see a U.S. flag being burned in protest, especially in another country, does “offended” — given the current-day connotation that it’s a feeling only the meek and frail express — really describe their emotions? Or do they feel anger instead, or maybe even something close to rage?
When Christians see symbols of their religion, like a crucifix or a Communion wafer, being publicly abused, is the depth of their feelings adequately contained within the word “offended”?
I’ll ignore the arguments that have been widespread recently over whether slavery was a cause of the Civil War. Instead, let’s go just a few months further back in history to the beginning of secession and the birth of the Confederate States of America.
South Carolina, the first to secede, made it clear it was doing so over slavery. It said that in its declaration of the reasons for secession. It went on to complain about what it called “the submersion of the Constitution” and how that “has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens.”
Texas’ declaration of its causes for secession said it was “undeniable” that members of “the African race” were “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
Mississippi’s statement criticizes its opponents for advocating “negro equality, socially and politically.”
Those seceding states formed the Confederacy, with a constitution that banned any laws “denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.”
In his famous Cornerstone Speech, CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens made clear what the Confederacy was about: “Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”
In these founding documents, we see the morally repugnant ideas on which secession and the Confederacy were based. Even if there had never been a Civil War, any American should have been embarrassed to suggest honoring these leaders, both civilian and military.
But there was a war, and after the short respite of Reconstruction, with words like “honor” and “heritage” on their lips, the same people who were stripping black people of their rights built monuments to their precious Lost Cause and its leaders.
Put yourself into the mind of a black person, descended from slaves and from those who lived in the Jim Crow era. When you saw leaders of a so-called nation based on racist ideas being honored with statues, parks and street names, how would you feel? Would “offended” really describe the enormity of your emotions?
This discussion over the monuments will, no doubt, continue. As it does, let’s avoid using newly weakened words like “offended” and use ones that more accurately describe the emotions at work: repugnance, disgust, righteous anger.
Dennis Persica’s email address is email@example.com.