The notion of “being offended” is something that is talked a lot about these days. There seems to be a large group of people who are always getting offended by things and then conversely an equally large group of people who say the first group needs to just chill out. Often to humorous effect, the roles can sometimes be reversed when it’s a completely different topic at hand.
Summing up one side of the debate, a certain Stephen Fry quote circulated the internet a while back:
Although there is something very attractive to what Stephen says, I think most of us suspect the issue is a bit more nuanced than that. In fact, when we really think about it, it can actually be a quite confusing topic, providing multiple angles that cause us to go around in circles on the issue and keeping us quite befuddled about the whole matter.
I think this is sometimes the train of thought we go through when we really stop to think about the concept of “being offended”:
- There are things that truly are offensive and society would be much better off without
- We often detect when people say “you’ve offended me” the same type of manipulation that we feel when, say, a child starts crying just to get attention, not because something is really wrong
On top of that…
- From a psychological standpoint, isn’t it true that everyone has the power to “choose” to be or not be offended anyway? Doesn’t that mean that the responsibility is never on the offender and it’s 100% on the person being offended? But if that’s true then nothing is truly offensive and we should never complain about it. Wait – that doesn’t seem right…
And thus, as we think deeper and deeper on the issue of being offended and try to determine if it’s good/bad/appropriate/irrelevant/illusory, we often end feeling a bit like this:
As you can see, it’s easy to go in circles when pondering this issue and at different times feel very different, even completely opposite ways about the idea of being offended. So let’s try and peel back the onion a little bit. (Is that a phrase? I think it’s a phrase. Just go with it.)
Let’s look at each of the numbered points above. I’m going to skip the first one for now and come back to it at the end, since it’s easier to analyze once we’ve looked at the other two.
When people say they are offended, are they simply whining?
When someone says “you offended me” are they no better than a child throwing a tantrum because they aren’t getting their way?
Well, the only answer possible is “maybe.” When you find a child crying, the first question you ask is not “is this child just whining?” but instead “what has brought on this child crying?” The answer might be, for instance, that they are lost, which is a legitimate reasons to cry and be upset. Or the answer might be that they’re spoiled rotten and that they’re crying to make their parents buy them a new toy.
In other words, the fact that they are crying is ultimately irrelevant. We don’t care about the crying (at least when it comes to judging the morality of the situation). We care about what caused the crying. The crying itself is simply a little alarm bell that goes off to say that something may be happening that is truly wrong in the world and needs to be corrected. But the crying itself doesn’t tell us anything more. We simply need more information.
In the exact same way, when someone tells you they are “offended,” that’s similarly just an alarm bell. It could be a legitimate alarm, or it could be a false one. The only thing to do is investigate further. The fact that the person was offended — by itself — ultimately has no hold on the morality of act that caused the offense. Those are two separate things. Someone can be wronged but not offended by it (but the act was still wrong), wronged and also offended (the act is, again, still wrong), or not wronged at all but offended (the act was fine, and the person probably just needs to learn to be less sensitive).
This is exactly the same as when someone comes to you and tells you they’re mad about something you did. We are all naturally miffed when someone comes to us in this manner and “expects” us to fix the fact that they are mad; the implication is that the fact that they are mad proves that they were wronged by you. But once again, “being mad” is only an alarm bell. Maybe they were truly wronged by you, maybe they weren’t. What we need to discuss is the action that they felt wronged them and figure out if it actually was morally wrong or not.
In summary to address 1), when someone says to you that they are “offended” and they say it in such a way to imply that the mere fact of it means you need to fix something, then yes, that’s manipulative. This is exactly the sort of thing Stephen Fry is talking about in his quote. It’s the same thing a child does in a toy store when they start crying to make you “fix” the crying by buying a toy. But, like I said earlier, the crying/being offended by itself proves nothing. You have to move to analyzing the act that caused the crying/offense to figure out if it’s right or wrong.
But before we do that, let’s consider the most pressing question.
Does one choose to be offended?
When we hear this idea, I think most of us sort of like it, because it makes us feel more in control while also pulling the rug out from underneath the whiners. But at the same time, it doesn’t totally sit well either. I think the main problem here is that we feel like if we admit that people are in complete control of feeling offended, then that would mean nothing is truly offensive. In other words, all responsibility, in every situation, lies on the person who was offended, since they supposedly could’ve easily just “chosen” to not be offended.
That’s taking the idea of “choosing to be offended” to the extreme.
I think the problem with that view (and the reason the notion of “choosing to not be offended” doesn’t always sit well with us) is that it’s really an ideal, but not really 100% attainable by anyone. Unless you’re maybe the Dalai Lama, you probably aren’t capable of always choosing to not be offended. Sure, you probably should have complete control of what you do with the fact that you’re offended (i.e. how you express those negative feelings), but you’re mostly likely never going to completely stop the emotional response you have to the worst offenses against you. That would be asking a lot.
It is probably good for all of us to continually flex the muscle of controlling those emotions, but we’ll probably never get to Spock-like levels of remaining completely stoic even when our most treasured beliefs/values/identity-makers are being stomped on. Therefore to some degree, saying that everyone “chooses” to be offended is really a misnomer. This is similar (but not quite the same) as saying that everyone “chooses” to be or not be happy. Yes, the ideal is for each of us to truly make the best of every situation and work to be happy (which, granted, we often control more than we think), but no one will ever completely reach that ideal.
So with all that in mind, now we can address the following question…
Are some things truly offensive and therefore should be discouraged by society?
My answer would be “yes,” for the following reasons.
First off, most things that are classified as offensive often seem like they do no immediate real harm (besides “upsetting” people), but in the end they contribute to an overall way of thinking in society, and that in turn ends up having negative tangible effects in the real world (examples of things in this category would be racist comments, rape jokes, etc). I’m not saying that things that meet this criteria should necessarily be made illegal, but that we need to think pretty seriously before we engage in that activity – it carries real weight and truly impacts the world, even if in only a small (but cumulative) way.
But let’s move on to the harder to answer question. What about things that don’t seem to have much of a tangible effect on society at all and instead merely “upset” someone?
Let me give a hypothetical example of this to help us analyze this particular situation. Let’s say there’s a guy name Bill and at a young age his parents were viciously murdered by a psychotic clown [a bunch of people just clicked away from this blog – sorry for offending you with your fear of clowns]. Now let’s say Bill walks into town and happens to accidentally walk by a circus that’s in town and bumps into a clown, and immediately a wave of emotional pain and fear consumes Bill, effectively ruining the next couple of hours of his life (quite understandably, I think we’d all agree).
Did the clown do something wrong? Of course not! We all recognize when considering that scenario that neither party has done anything wrong, and it’s just an unfortunate circumstance. But let’s change the scenario. What if Bill’s neighbor Jake finds out about his fear and hatred of clowns, and decides to put a clown mask on Bill’s doorstep for him to wake up to the next morning?
Well that’s just mean! Clearly Jake is in the wrong here. Once again, I’m not saying there needs to be a law against placing clown masks on people’s doorsteps, I’m just staying in this situation, judging on just an relational/personal level, Jake is in the wrong here. He’s the one at fault and is being a bully. No one would say that Jake is innocent and that Bill “just needs to be less sensitive.” Bill’s parents were murdered by an f***ing clown!
So what’s the difference in these two (hopefully) hypothetical scenarios? Well the difference is that in the second situation, Jake does a completely unnecessary (gratuitous) act by placing the clown mask on Bill’s doorstep. There was zero reason for Jake to do that except to make Bill’s life harder. That’s it. That’s also why it’s easy to judge that situation. There is only one Good Thing that is being threatened here: Bill’s happiness.
The first situation is different though. If someone were to say, sympathizing with Bill, that there should be no more clowns allowed in the world due to how it affects Bill, we would say that’s ridiculous. Sure, we feel bad for Bill, but to say no clowns are allowed is to undermine the freedom of everyone else, which is also a Good Thing. In other words, this situation is a clashing of two mutually exclusive Good Things: Bill’s happiness and everyone else’s freedom of expression. It’d be great if we could keep Bill happy and get to enjoy the pleasures of having clowns around, but those two things unfortunately conflict in this situation (actually, clowns really aren’t that much fun, so maybe we should just get rid of them after all #TeamBill).
We rightly judge that in the first situation freedom of expression is the better and much more reasonable thing to protect. We’d love to help Bill avoid bumping into clowns accidentally, but there just isn’t a good way to do that without encroaching on everyone else’s freedom of expression. In the second situation however, it’s tough to frame Jake’s action as freedom of expression (putting the mask on the doorstep) due to the gratuitous and obviously pointed act of simply making Bill’s life harder.
My point is this: of course it’s desirable to keep people happy whenever we can. Why wouldn’t it be? The issue isn’t that we shouldn’t do our best (when reasonable) to keep people happy, the issue is that it can conflict with another Good Thing – e.g. free speech, protecting another party involved, individual responsibility, etc.
It’d be great if we could do both – keep all the Good Things! But unfortunately, we just can’t. Sometimes multiple Good Things simply clash head on and there’s nothing we can do about that. So we have to judge between them, and judging between multiple Good Things in the world sucks. So even though we do need to make judgments on these things, let’s all try to have a little grace for each other and realize that it’s a tough thing to balance in the first place.
To recap, this is how I see the way the notion of “being offended” breaking down.
- The act (and experience) of being offended is complicated and hard to judge
- However, there are truly offensive things that go beyond “upsetting” people and actually harm society, even if it’s subtle and cumulative
- There are also offensive things that could simply be classified as mean and therefore are immoral as well
- People can control the feeling of being offended probably a lot more than they normally realize, but there is an upper limit to that and that’s ok – we can only expect so much from a person
- It’s ok to want to keep those people happy but to also feel the tension when consideration of their happiness clashes with another Good Thing (e.g. free speech)
- Since it is all so complicated to pick apart and judge, let’s all try to have a little grace for each other rather than 1) flippantly being offensive, 2) telling someone “you’ve offended me” as if that’s proof the other person needs to change their behavior or 3) telling someone “you’re choosing to be offended” as if it’s a mechanical switch they can just flip and be done with it.
You might be wondering, what’s the point of this post exactly? Do I think I “solved” the issue of what is offensive and what isn’t? No, that’s not what I’m trying to say at all (and see the next paragraph below). I wrote this is because breaking down an issue like this helps me develop the mental structures necessary to analyze real-world instances of people being offended. It also gives me something I can share with all of you and then hear how you break it down as well (which in turn helps me refine my own take). It’s an exercise in learning and one that I sincerely hope helps other people develop there own way of analyzing complex issues in life like this as well. The end goal would be that people discuss real-world “offense” issues on a deeper, more fundamental level, recognizing what’s really going on underneath, rather than staying on a superficial level just yelling back and forth at each other.
Secondly, I tried very hard to avoid giving specific examples because that is completely beside the point. I’m trying to break down on an abstract level the notion of being offended in any given situation, I’m not trying to decide what actually is and isn’t offensive. That would be hard.