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Work • Politics & Government

On Feeling Offended

It is has become hard to say anything, especially on social media, that won’t upset someone somewhere rather a lot. There’s a myriad of things people can get deeply offended by: perceived slights around economics, nationality, social group, sexual tastes, commitments.

This is the result of something extremely positive: democracy. Democracy makes us – and this is a lovely word – gloriously, disputatious. We’re no longer serf-like submissive people who just bow to authority. We’re brought up to speak up for ourselves and respect our rights.

The problem is that this can, on a bad day, tilt over into a settled, unquestioning kind of self-righteousness. It’s an attitude that quickly assumes that we know what someone else means when they say something about our areas of concern. And that they are trying deliberately to cause offence. And therefore that we must respond at once with anger and pride.

Taking offence can be a gloriously solipsistic emotion, where we’re always readier to pull up the drawbridge and fire rather than work towards achieving an understanding another person. One takes comforts in why one is right, rather than attempting that much more daring and interesting exercise: trying to imagine why the other person feels the way they do.

There’s something else: we’ve forgotten the art of civility: the art of trying to work through to an agreement. The art of not necessarily saying when  you don’t agree. These may be slightly old-fashioned traits, but they’re virtues too – especially in a small world, where we can’t all shout at the same time, and we sometimes have to learn to live with disagreement rather than always hope we can resolve it.

Furthermore, we should bear in mind that almost all offence is caused inadvertently. But the person who takes offence ready treats everything as deliberate.It’s a fatal misunderstanding of others’ intentions. 

Then there’s the issue of perspective. We live in a world of larger or smaller offences. There are some properly big offences in the world. The things really to be offended by are that parts of Africa are in chaos, that certain countries have a proclivity for bombing as a solution, that it’s so hard to make a living – especially doing something that’s tolerable. Sometimes, focus on micro offences gets in the way of seeing the big offences.

We are emerging from thousands of years of history when only a tiny group in society was allowed to get offended. The rest of us did the ploughing quietly. So we’re letting off steam… But on a bad day: it can look like everyone is wailing and insulting, cursing and cussing. No one is looking to empathise or find agreement.

Being offended is a choice, it’s a way of allowing what someone says to get deep into you and it’s a way of imagining people’s motives as very negative. Perhaps – sometimes – we should just look the other way and not let it get to us. Sometimes not getting offended should be the truly great and prestigious choice.

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