How to Write Offensively

There is more to writing offensively than lazy jokes and cheap laughs, and offence can be used to great effect.

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Writing offensive content is a Marmite question. How offensive is too offensive, should you be offensive at all, should we take all content as existing in a vacuum devoid of any political, historical, or socio-economic context? Everybody’s mileage will vary on this subject; there is no solid definitive answer to this question, and that’s only to be expected. We should see ourselves, individually and as part of a greater societal and cultural consciousness, as fluid beings, changing and growing as we learn. The point isn’t to not try, but to be aware.

I grew up watching a lot of old comedies. Barbara Windsor’s tits played a pretty big part in my childhood, as did jokes about weak men, the LGBT+ community, and women in general—which is a topic I might talk about more another time because it’s something I have pretty strong feelings about, but I try to limit myself to one feminist rant per week.

But my point is that I’m aware of what comedy used to look like. It’s something I have a lot of nostalgia for—I can’t really help it, because I have such fond memories of watching Carry On, and Dad’s Army, and Morecambe and Wise. And it’s not just the rose-tinted spectacles of childhood; it’s that it felt so much easier to be funny back then. You didn’t have to worry about whether this joke was right or not; it was just if something was funny. So I can understand why people are resistant to the idea of changing what ‘offensive’ looks like now. It’s hard work, and it carries this sense of guilt with it, because if you change something, it’s as if you’ve made a mistake in liking something, and no one wants to admit they’ve made a mistake.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be offensive anymore. If anything, I think offensive writing is even more powerful now than it was a couple of decades ago. Back then you just had to make some easy jokes or play off some lazy stereotypes, and you were done. Now if you want to write offensively, you actually have to think about why you’re doing it, if only so you have a ready answer for the foaming hordes of people on Twitter. While call-out culture isn’t great, if it helps you avoid lazy writing decisions, then that is a good thing.

When Group A now say, “That thing was offensive,” often what they mean is, “That thing used out-dated stereotypes to perpetuate a certain negative attitude toward a certain group of people.” And when Group B say, “No it wasn’t,” what they mean is, “I enjoyed the thing despite its content and I don’t want to feel guilty about having enjoyed it.” What both groups have here is a sense of unease, and that is what offensive writing needs to work with, and be aware of, and use carefully.

The intent of offensive writing is, obviously, to offend. Who are you trying to offend, and why? If you write a rape joke, I want to know what the point is. Are you writing just for shock value, so we can see you’re making light of something terrible? Fine, okay; there is a place for shock value just for shock value’s sake, but not, I think, in thoughtful writing. It’s like the equivalent of a jump scare. It makes an impact for a moment, but it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t do anything important. There’s a reason why Jaws, Rosemary’s Baby, and the Wicker Man have endured for so long and are still praised as examples of great storytelling.

This is my favourite joke about the Holocaust:

A Holocaust survivor dies and goes to Heaven. He goes up to God and tells him a Holocaust joke.

God frowns. “That’s not very funny.”

The Holocaust survivor shrugs. “I guess you had to be there.”

This is a joke about the Holocaust. But it is not a joke making light of the Holocaust. There is a very important difference here, and one that sometimes gets overlooked. This joke makes me uneasy, but then it makes me think; and it makes me think about how we view comedy, what the point of a joke is, a survivor’s right to reclaim their experience in any way they want, and the horror of living through a period of history where it must have felt like your God had abandoned you.

Look how much that joke accomplishes. My initial reaction is amusement, then unease, then after that unease I start thinking about why it makes me uneasy, and by the end of it all I’m in a very different place to where I started. It does so much more than make a brief flare of funny that fizzles out and leaves nothing behind.

It’s not a new notion to reject your first idea. Reject your first idea, and your second, and your third. Don’t go for what’s easy, go for what’s unexpected. I think that should apply to every single facet of your writing, including when you want to be offensive. I want to be surprised, I want to be shocked, I want to be offended. But I don’t want to be bored. If you try and offend me with something like “Hitler was right” or “rapists are just misunderstood” or “Jim Crow was a good idea” then I’m not offended; I’m annoyed. Because you haven’t tried at all to reach into what’s really taboo and make it mean something real.

Everything you write should have a point. You should build your characters, craft your dialogue, and layer your settings so everything hangs together in a way that says something and makes sense. If that means you have to work a bit harder and reach for something more than an easy cliché, I think that’s all for the greater good.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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