Offending your audience for fun and profit: how to say controversial things

published Jan 12, 2007, last modified Jun 26, 2013

Do you blog? Then offending your audience should be the least of your concerns. And here's why.

I'm going to begin this article with a single thought: I'd rather you insult me than have you be dishonest with me.

And here's why.

Lies and deceit in pretty words

Let me lift a couple of words from one of Paul Graham's writings:

Another approach is to follow that word, heresy. In every period of history, there seem to have been labels that got applied to statements to shoot them down before anyone had a chance to ask if they were true or not. "Blasphemy", "sacrilege", and "heresy" were such labels for a good part of western history, as in more recent times "indecent", "improper", and "unamerican" have been. By now these labels have lost their sting. They always do. By now they're mostly used ironically. But in their time, they had real force.

We have such labels today, of course, quite a lot of them, from the all-purpose "inappropriate" to the dreaded "divisive." In any period, it should be easy to figure out what such labels are, simply by looking at what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue. When a politician says his opponent is mistaken, that's a straightforward criticism, but when he attacks a statement as "divisive" or "racially insensitive" instead of arguing that it's false, we should start paying attention.

The message in this? Say what you mean. Impopular speech is still valid speech.

Political correctness: censorship in disguise

What's the difference between political correctness and honesty? One lets people offend with fancy words in disguise. The other means "honesty first, respect and consideration second".

Which one would you rather apply? If you said "political correctness" to yourself, let me ask you one thing: do you think honest discourse is less valuable than popular discourse? I beg to differ. If you are a moron, and I call you a moron, it's the truth, no matter how unpopular. If you're a moron, and I say "but, well, you've got your own opinion, and we're both right", then I'm a bigger moron for being politically correct and not telling the truth. Political correctness is just a way to make discourse "less offensive"... and less truthful.

Say what you mean; use transparent, contundent, honest words. For example: have you heard the word "handicapable" being used? That's a great example of political correctness, because:

  1. Can someone honestly think people with hindrances are "more handy and capable" than people without them? The word "handicapable" certainly suggests a falsehood.
  2. The fact that handicapped people are, well, handicapped, doesn't mean they are worth less than a non-handicapped person. Fortunately, we live in a society where everyone has the same rights and the same intrinsic value is bestowed upon all of us.

So, in this particular example, just because it's "hip" to call handicapped people "handicapable", doesn't mean it's an honest word. If you ask me, equating self-worth with capabilities is offensive to handicapped people. Using "handicapable" reeks of political correctness, a "feel-good" word that conveys a falsehood in disguise.

Don't just stay there, bitch about it!

In short: if you want to bitch about something in your blog, then fucking bitch about it. Don't try to cater for people with thin skin. Odds are, they'll be the ones marketing your writings.

Do yourself a favor: and attempt your best to deliver your ideas them with the most punch and the greatest veracity. Use your balls to say things. And, for the love of all things dear: don't shut up!

Leave the "politically correct" and "slanderously afraid" angle to newspaper journalists; after all, almost no one reads them anymore.

And for the love of all things dear to you, please don't shut up.

"But think of the children!"

You may think that, by practicing self-censorship, you're serving your audience; nothing could be further from the truth: politeness and political correctness usually do your readers a disservice.

Always prefer plain facts and truth, even if they're inconvenient. Cherish and uphold your own values in the face of defiance. In other words: don't lie, and don't "dress up" stuff. Incongruence in discourse has a way of showing.

If I have learnt anything in years of blogging, is that offended audiences are the most rabid readers and spreaders of your word. They may whine and complain all you like, but they sure count as page views.

Advertisers and sponsors count as readers

The same philosophy must apply to your sponsors and advertisers: it's your duty to treat them straight to the truth, no matter how inconvenient it may sound. Doing the opposite is called dishonesty, and people pick up on that.

Be dishonest about your stakeholders and, sooner or later, your readers will shove your writings into the big archive (also known as the recycle bin of oblivion).

Treat people like they deserve -- no more, no less

In short: don't be afraid to alienate your readers -- you may end up censoring yourself, and that's not good for neither your readers nor you. Wanna hurl a "fuck you" at me? Do so, but don't lie to me. Heck, you should apply this philosophy to your entire life! A couple fistfights never killed anyone.

In the end, a couple roughed feathers won't harm anyone, and they could benefit you. Remember: if you tip-toe around your readers, they'll head somewhere else.

Now I'll leave you with a reading assignment -- two must-reads that'll let you learn more about yourself in the world:

  1. What you can't say, by Paul Graham
  2. Re: What you can't say, by himself again