Man forced to surrender his "offensive Star Trek license plate

How about this conversation?

Offender: [something someone takes offense to]
Offendee: hey, that’s offensive!
Offender: oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to be, why is it offensive?
Offendee: [explains why it’s offensive]
Offender: oh, I see. that’s understandable, but I was actually referring to [thing that isn’t offensive]
Offendee: oh, I see. that’s understandable, but you might want to avoid that phrase now that you know people are offended by it.
Offender: I sure will!

People who say offensive things like to present people get who offended as the unreasonable ones. I think once you know that that a certain word or phrase offends people, you get to personally make a choice between what you care about more: the feelings of other people or using that specific word or phrase. If it’s the latter, then how can anyone take that as anything other than you being a jerk?

I’ve been in situations on several occasions where I had the conversation you presented, even on the internet. If you genuinely want to have that conversation, and you aren’t just presenting it as an impossibility to be smug about how unreasonable other people are, I have a few tips:

  1. Don’t say, “Why is it offensive?” The word “why” get’s people’s backs up and makes them feel like they are being told to justify themselves. Try to rephrase using the word “what” like “What about it offended you?”
  2. Don’t expect them to educate you. Usually if you don’t know why something is offensive you can type it into google and find out. I know we’re having a conversation, but acknowledging that you are asking for help when you ask them to explain what’s offensive is useful. “If you don’t mind, could you tell me what I said that offended you?”
  3. If you feel the need to explain yourself, make sure you also validate the point they are making. “That’s understandable” seems like decent shorthand for that in your mock conversation so you’ve got this one.
  4. Accept that if they think you were saying something racist, they are going to enter the discussion with a bit of hostility and develop the fortitude to endure that.


Licence plate guy: Assimilate!
Indigenous person: That’s racist!
Licence plate guy: Oh wow! I didn’t think I was being racist. Would you mind telling me what struck you that way?
Indigenous person: Residential schools?!?
Licence plate guy: Oh! I didn’t think about it that way. I meant it to be a reference to Star Trek. Now that you point this out I see why it would be hurtful to some people.
Indigenous person: Oh, the borg? I didn’t even think of that. I just assumed it was directed at immigrants.
Licence plate guy: Immigrants? I thought you said it was about residential schools?
Indigenous person: Most of the time when people say racist stuff they are talking about Muslim immigrants these days. People forget that indigenous people even exist.
Licence plate guy: Maybe this isn’t the best licence plate in the world.

Because without that last line, how is this a reasonable exchange at all? How is licence plate guy being reasonable, driving around town, knowing that some fraction of the population is seeing his plate and thinking, “What a racist shitbag,” and that not all of them are having this reasonable conversation with him to find out he’s just a Star Trek fan? Are there no other borg themed licence plates in the world? WERBORG not good enough? LOCUTUS? 8 OF 9? I could come up with these all day.


The problem isn’t that someone was offended, or that the plate was surrendered. The problem is that there was no dialogue at all to even see if the two sides could reach a common ground. The default position is to not even try to bridge understanding, and instead just fight over it or make sarcastic jokes. And I love sarcastic jokes, but it shouldn’t be our only other option beside rage.

Maybe no common ground was possible. But we no longer even try. We just go for the attack using the biggest stick at our disposal, be it the law or the media or the rage-addicted masses scanning the internet for things to go ballistic over.

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What a bizarre assumption to make.


[quote=“quorihunter, post:110, topic:100214”]
I actually feel this situation is a direct relation to the Washington Redskins team name/mascot issue. It draws so many parallels to me
[/quote] Except that the Redskins is an outright derogatory term. Please carry on and tell me how being offended by that term is “an overreaction”.


So THIS right here is what absolutely OUTRAGES AND OFFENDS me. GOD DAMMIT! At what point did I EVER state that anything about this Star Trek reference or the Redskins team issues is an over reaction by ANYONE?

I didn’t.

Don’t make assumptions about my perspectives and feelings.

I stated there are parallels in terms of one side being offended by X and another not finding X offensive and neither side actually listening to the other. But ya know…whatever. Clearly I am a monster.

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What counts is that the oppression against people who want “ASSIMIL8” on the licence plate continues! The idea that the easily offended have the power in society is nonsense. The “easily offended” can’t even get police to stop shooting their children.

It’s at: There is no one universal rule that can easily be applied to all situations.

There are people who use their judgment to weigh harms. In this case, it’s not about one person being offended, it’s about a person who makes decisions about personalized licence plates going, “Oh, I can see how that might offend people,” and thinking it is reasonable to suspect that many people would be “offended” (where here “offended” is a term for having someone’s licence plate communicate to them that the time they were kidnapped by the government and taken to a school to be sexually abused in an effort to stamp out their culture was a good thing). Then they balance that against the right to have a personalized licence plate (which is nearly zero, and would hardly outweigh even one person being offended).

Governments get complaints from lone cranks all day every day and they don’t act on them. The idea that they jump whenever a single person has an opinion is not connected to reality. Creating some kind of unit test where you pull 10 people off the street at random to check for offense with a predetermined threshold would be a drastically bad way to make decisions.

The goal is that we all trying to understand in good faith how we affect each other and that we then make decisions that take that into account. If you are willing to offend people in order to protect your home, your job, your family, I get it. You aren’t going to weigh someone else’s feelings above the roof of your head. If you are willing to offend people to protect your right to say a particular word or have a vanity plate, that’s just being an asshole.


Wait, someone got shot in this story? I must have missed that. It’s almost like you’re conflating everything and everyone into a single group.

Wow, that took a turn.

I posed the initial question as an invitation to discuss the differences between government issued plate and casual conversation, or your reasons for thinking that there were no differences.

I did not ask because I thought you were an end all authority, but that is the way you answered, effectively shutting down any possible discussion.

I found this to be hypocritical and rude, especially following your above scenario. If someone with a different opinion engages with you and you cut them off, you have no ground to stand on when calling people with grievances unreasonable.


This attitude puts far too much emphasis on the experience of being offended, as if it’s the worst possible thing that ever could happen to a person and needs to be avoided at all costs, when in reality it’s a trivial matter compared to serious issues that people face. Rather than having a society where everyone is constantly kept on their toes in order to avoid accidentally offending someone, I’d much rather a society where reasonable people can accidentally take offense to something, realise they maybe jumped the gun and saved their energy for more important things.

It’s far more important that someone who may have caused some unintended offence understands the underlying issues rather than just worrying about trivial surface level noise, even if they moderated their behavior on one issue, something else would no doubt raise it’s head before too long, there’s no shortage of things for people to needlessly get their knickers in a bunch about (no doubt there are many people who would take offense to that perfectly inoffensive piece of idiomatic English for example). These kind of things are little more than wasteful distractions at the end of the day.

Another thing they do is provide ammunition to people who actually want to deliberately offend people, maybe we’ll see Canadian white supremacists showing up at protests dressed as the Borg now? See the ignorance around Pepe for a similar recent example.


Maybe this is making you think of a more general issue, but in this particular case I think we have to acknowledge that no dialogue was possible or warranted. If the guy continues to have the plate then people will continue to see the plate. He’s not going to have a dialogue with all of them. If this was about a lone crank with a crazy theory about why the plate shouldn’t be allowed they wouldn’t have taken the plate away - they believed this was going to cause offense to more people. And it’s not really the burden of the person reporting the problem to deal with the problem.

I find almost everyone is ready to have a reasonable conversation but to get there is often a lot of work. I have training and experience answering calls on distress lines. A lot of people think that they can just go in and have a reasonable conversation without doing any work, but it’s hard work and they aren’t prepared for it, and then they get upset that the other person isn’t being reasonable.


I’m not a mind reader, I didn’t know why you would think it would be different in that case, and assumed you would tell me in reply. This is quite apt for the discussion, but it wasn’t my intention to be rude with my succinct reply, apologies if it came across that way.

I think you’re bang on the money in the statement above - usually generalized offence (that is, you find something offensive, versus someone directly trying to offend you) is not a reason to engage in fight-or-flight behaviour, even if it makes you feel that way. However, that doesn’t excuse the offense or otherwise suggest nothing should be done about it.

Example: Someone walking down the street with a “shoot the purple people” sign might not offend me directly, as I’m not purple. But it may very well directly offend a purple person who sees it, and it’s entirely reasonable for me to take offence at how purple people might perceive the sign as well.

That’s why in the case of this licence plate, it’s important to consider the context of where it is, and what the demographic makeup is of the community.


That’s a good point. It would be nice though if he could have a conversation with the people reporting his plates so he could realize why it would be a good idea to get a different plate and they could realize he wasn’t saying what they thought he was. In short, I would like to live in a world where the example of good dialogue you posted was the norm, not the exception. I agree it takes work, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. That said, it may not be practical in the case of vehicle plates.

I’ve often wished when riding my bike or driving my car that there was some way to send a short audio message to other drivers. Mostly when I see someone driving without headlights at night, or to thank someone for letting me merge in heavy traffic. I even considered building a sign in the back window that could light up to say thank you, but worried people would assume I was being sarcastic and get road-rage-y.

Most motorists being the jerks they are, this would almost certainly go really wrong, so I’m also kind of glad it doesn’t exist.


It absolutely doesn’t. I gave a range of how heavily we should weight offense, and it didn’t include infinity. I said that if someone you know a word choice or a vanity licence plate is going to hurt feelings then you’re a jerk if you insist upon it anyway. That’s only saying offense has infinite importance if word choice and vanity licence plates have infinite importance and if being thought of as a jerk is also terminally bad.

Word choice is trivial. Licence plates are trivial. Being thought of as a jerk by people you don’t think too much of anyway is hardly the end of the world.

I’m saying that people should put some weight on other people’s feelings when they make decisions for themselves. I’m also concurring with others that vanity plates are a particular instance where there’s no need to have any tolerance for offense because it wouldn’t really do any harm if they cancelled them altogether.

As I said, I’ve observed a tendency among those who don’t like other people being offended to present the offended people as the unreasonable ones. Don’t project that onto me. I’m actually using judgment to balance different considerations instead of trying to fall back on absolute principles and extrapolating from a licence plate to the woes of society.


What did @GulliverFoyle ever do to you?


We’ll have to agree to disagree here because I don’t think that would make that person a jerk at all.

Due to the fairly flexible word order of English, the song Purple People Eater has caused a lot of difficulty over the years.


I didn’t expect you to know anything, I expected that you would expand on your position so that something like your imaginary dialogue would be possible.

You can’t simply answer NO to an open question and expect people to want to further engage with you. It functions in the same way that saying you don’t care would.


I think you can, though maybe it’s more natural to do so in an actual conversation, rather than an online one, lacking the various non-verbal cues that would help it along. But I see where you’re coming from, we both it seems expected things of the other person that they didn’t realise was expected of them. I hope my follow up post expanded on my position to your satisfaction.