There’s a fine line between really funny and mildly insulting.

Credit: Kyler Becker on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Sometimes I read articles that are meant to be humorous or written in a tone that is lighthearted and familiar but which have certain sentences or ways of referring to people that seems to cross a line. It is not that the article is intended to be disparaging or that the comments themselves seem to be purposely insulting.

Often they aren’t even the focus of the article, but instead are said in passing. But still, they seem a bit disrespectful or demeaning or careless. For example, perhaps you are suggesting that a pacifist approach to something is appropriate but shouldn’t necessarily be use blindly or in all situations. You might choose to demonstrate that by saying, “But not the kind of tree hugging, kumbaya singing pacifism that Gandhi used.”

Now regardless of the fact that it might seem to me that the writer was just trying to say something in an amusing way, this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a slight sense of discomfort or even offense. Gandhi was a giant force for civil rights, drew worldwide attention to the injustice of discrimination and influenced the course of civil rights not only in his own country but many other countries as well. I would be fine with it if Gandhi wasn’t mentioned and would then find it amusing.

Similarly, I think we should be aware of the potential for insult when we choose the images to use with our articles. For example, perhaps you are writing about when it’s beneficial to challenge authority. For the image, you choose one of a person standing next to a sign which says, “Silence and Respect,” who is pretending to yell, while also giving the finger, which was clearly taken at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While I probably would have been amused if the picture was at another park, doing this at a monument to all those who have been killed in battle would hit me wrong.

I have written before about how what we say, the words we choose, having power and meaning. I have also written about the consequences that can result when we aren’t careful with our words. In one article I discussed the notion that just because we don’t intend to insult or cause harm to others doesn’t dismiss our culpability when we do so. Ultimately, we are all responsible for the hurt we cause others through what we say and write and how we choose to demonstrate our point.

Some may say I take things too personally, and I have been accused of being too serious, even by family members. Maybe I do and maybe I am. But I still think that there are times when we could all be more careful with our words, both spoken and written.

When I read a few articles this morning that I felt this could apply to, they caused me to go back and read over something I was working on today. I realized there were a few things that I should rework just in case they might be seen as insulting though I certainly hadn’t intended them to be.

Just because we can publish whatever we want, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. The advent of the personal blog I think, has influence our willingness to put any belief, opinion, reflection or account out there for all to read. The ability to quickly publish it with the press of a button also serves as a means of instant gratification.

Some have responded to my opinion on this which I have shared elsewhere by saying that people can choose not to read something. Again, I think that is being used as a justification to say what we want without the need to take responsibility for it. It is also the case that by the time someone gets to a point of not reading something they find objectionable, the insult has already been felt.

It could also be the case that despite trying to be neutral about a topic, that your own opinion about someone is unintentionally bleeding through without you realizing it. To avoid suggesting something that you don’t intend, be sure to read your work over carefully. You can also give it to someone else to read preferably someone who has different opinions than you, to see if certain things might come across wrong.

You may not agree with me or you may think that if a couple of people are insulted it’s not that big of a deal. You may also think that those who become offended by something that is clearly not intended to be offensive just don’t have a sense of humor or “get” what you are trying to say. But the bottom line is whether or not these things may be true, do you really want to risk hurting someone if you can avoid it?

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Natalie Frank, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology)

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I write about behavioral health & other topics. I’m Managing Editor (Serials, Novellas) for LVP Press. See my other articles:


By Medium Partner Program Friends — a publication about what unites us all.

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