(trigger warnings: metaphorical knives, metaphorical stabbings, real internet)
Imagine one of your friends is running around throwing knives. They’re not trying to hurt anyone, it’s just that running around, throwing his knives is really fun for him. Man, look at him go; he just sure does like throwing those knives! Maybe he’s recently been on a knife-throwing course and he wants to show off his skills? Throwing knives is one of our nation’s favourite pastimes after all!
Now, I’ve got nothing against knives. I love a good knife! If I need to cut a steak, the knife is the first thing I go for. I will not reach for the spoon, I will not reach for the fork, as they are unsuited to the task at hand! No sir, in this situation, the knife is my friend. If your friend there, the one throwing knives about, if he threw a knife at my steak I’d be pretty ok with this situation. If someone just showed me a knife instead of throwing it I’d hahaha, that sure is a great knife. Good work! I mean, I don’t know why I’d laugh, I guess I just enjoy a good knife, especially when it’s not hurting anyone.
Now imagine that your friend, y’know, the one with all the knives (your harmless friend, Friend A), imagine that they threw a knife and it hit one of your other friends. Not fatally or anything, after all he wasn’t using *big* knives, but they’re definitely injured, definitely hurt and bleeding. They’re also pretty damn angry about this, after all, some dude just hit them in the shoulder with a knife. Like, seriously, I haven’t ever been stabbed with a knife myself, but I know enough to know that it fucking hurts. They are livid.
Maybe you’re even not paying close attention and at first you’re all ‘Hahahaha, that was such a good knife you just threw there friend, you crack me up’ but then you realise and you think ‘shit that friend of mine’s been stabbed, I did not realise until they shouted ‘You bastard, you have totally stabbed me right now!” Now you’re all conflicted, because you’re sorry your Friend B got hurt, but that was a totes sweet knife Friend A just threw and you can totally see how they did not mean to stab up anybody at all.
And they start shouting at the knife-happpy dude. And, given they’ve just been goddamn perforated, they’re not as kind as they could be with the words they use. And they’re shouting about how it’s not ok to throw sharp knives at people.
And you’re like, ‘Yeah, but he didn’t mean to stab you. I get that you’re upset, but there’s no need to bully the poor guy. He just wanted to throw some knives about, he totally didn’t mean to hurt anyone!’
And Friend B suggest to you, as both their friends, that maybe you should have a word and try to prevent future stabbings? Like, they’d take it as a kindness.
And imagine, just give it a go, that the Friend A who threw the knife is all like ‘Whatever. I just love throwing knives around, I didn’t mean to hit anybody so I didn’t. It is a fact that I didn’t stab anybody, so you are all overreacting to a perfectly harmless knife.’
Friend B explains that the knife was clearly sharp and totally not harmless.
And Friend A he follows up with ‘Look, I’m really sorry if you decided to get stabbed by my knife, but it was perfectly harmless. It’s a knife! It cuts steaks and sandwiches, it’s way too harmless to hurt people. It’s not my fault you can’t take a knife! Seriously, the only people who could possibly be stabbed by such a harmless knife are people who want to be stabbed. People who enjoy having their bodies punctured by sharp metal and just want to kick up a fuss about the fact that they’ve been stabbed.’
And Friend B is like ‘Bullshit, you threw that knife at me, which makes it an offensive weapon. I literally find that offensive.’
And of course by ‘offensive’ they mean the knife is being used in a way that’s damaging, dangerous and painful to humans.
Friend A responds that this is free country and Friend B is limiting his freedom to throw things! That’s not cool!
And Friend B is like ‘Sure, you have the freedom to throw stuff, but if you throw knives about you kinda lose the right to be surprised when people get angry at you.’
And you think for a moment and you say, just pretend that you say ‘But he didn’t know he was going to hurt anybody, maybe you guys are overreacting?’
And Friend B says ‘The fact that he didn’t mean to hurt anyone doesn’t mean that I will magically stop bleeding. But I guess if he apologises and says he’ll stop throwing knives and stick to throwing pies or something then we can move past it. I’ll still probably be pretty angry about the stabbing, but we could let bygones be bygones.’
And the Friend A is all like ‘Lalala, I love knives, I’m gonna throw knives all over the goddamn shop and you’re all so unreasonable to tell me to stop! I don’t see how anyone could be hurt by being hurt by a knife, so I’m gonna keep on going.’
And Friend B is like ‘Dude, this is seriously uncool, are you just gonna stand there and let them throw knives at me?’ And you can see the middle ground cracking beneath your feet, and it feels like there is no safe place between these two friends. No way that you can bring them together.
And … what do you say? Like, on the one hand, Friend A meant no harm (he doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong, I mean, he’s basically just a feckless puppy with knives) and this whole ‘stabbing’ incident’s been blown way out of proportion anyway, like, people have not once stopped shouting at you since the stabbing began and it’s not as if you have even stabbed anyone, you have not thrown a single knive FFS. On the other hand, Friend A did hurt Friend B and he still hasn’t stopped throwing knives. But no matter what you say, you are sure that someone is gonna be angry with you.
So what do you say?
I like to think you’d ask your friend to stop throwing knives. At least to stop throwing them in places where they might hit someone. You don’t have to be angry with him. Just a quiet word would do it. You don’t have to tell him he’s a bad person, because he’s not; he just loves knives. But no matter how hard-done-by you think knife-loving Friend A is, no matter how innocent his intentions or how mean you think people have been in their rank overreactions to being stabbed, I like to think you’d ask them to stop, if for no other reason than you don’t like seeing your friends in pain.
That’s what I’d hope at least.
I think we’ve pretty much established by now that words can hurt people and hurt them badly. I think we’ve established by now that enough abuse and enough bullying can literally kill someone (just as enough stabbings will eventually kill someone). So imagine that instead of knives, we’ve been talking about people making offensive jokes. Jokes that cause people pain.
Jokes (and words generally) have, in fact, been used often throughout history to deliberately hurt and oppress people (especially vulnerable groups minorities). Jokes, when targetted at people, can be pretty damaging. Not always, sure, there are ways to use both jokes and knives safely, but when you use a knife you’re usually careful because you’re bearing in mind the damage you can do. Doing the same with jokes seems only sensible.
So the next time someone says ‘I find that offensive’ think twice about what they mean. Because when people say ‘that’s offensive’ to someone’s words what they mean is that they’re hurtful, that they’re dangerous and could cause harm. So if you’ve offended someone, even accidentally, it’s like you’ve metaphorically stabbed them in their brainplace with your words. Which isn’t OK. So their first instinct will likely be to shout ‘NOT OK’ (its certainly what I’d do if someone stabbed me in the brain) and they may seem angry and may seem like they’re attacking you, but they’re just angry because they’ve been hurt.
That pain is no less real for being unintended.
The anger caused by someone carelessly hurting you is also no less real.
Words can cut just as sharply as blades.
And just because you can’t see the blood doesn’t mean the damage is any less.
So the next time someone tells you that you’ve hurt them, I hope you’ll see past your intent and see the pain you’ve caused and work out a way not to hurt them again.
It seems to me like it’s the nice thing to do.