Sunday, 16 November 2008

"Offended" is a choice you make

We'll start with an epiphanette[1] vouchsafed to me by an insightful friend:

Offence can never be given, only taken.

In other words, before you can offend me, I have to allow you to do so.

It's understandable that many people don't realise this - given a strong emotional reaction to a subject, I may instantly feel offended by something someone said. I make no conscious decision, and the only action I perceive is the original statement - it looks like simple cause and effect.

However, the important word is perceive - sure, it looks to me as if my offence was a direct effect of the statement, but that's not actually true.

Offend me. No, really - go on...

Call my mother names. Impugn my political affiliation. Assert things about my sexuality. Go on - post comments or e-mail me, if you like. All of these things can be reliably guaranteed to cause offence to people, but I promise I won't get offended by any of them. How can this be?

It's because I've simply chosen not to take offence at them. This much is obvious, but wait - if a statement is or is not "offensive", how can I choose whether or not to be offended? If "being offended" is a direct consequence of the statement, how can I opt out, and merely decide not to be?

The point here is that being offended is a choice. It might be the default choice - one I usually take automatically, or without even being consciously aware of it - but if I can choose not to be offended, surely that proves the opposite choice (being offended) is also a choice?

If offence can only ever be taken, then the "offensiveness" is your reaction to a statement, not a property of the statement itself. Moreover, it's not even a reaction the speaker can necessarily predict ahead of time - I make a statement, and then you decide whether you're offended by it.

Always remember this fact - every time you are offended, it's because you have chosen to feel that way. The nasty feeling you have is a direct consequence of your choice, not of the statement which motivated it.

The case of deliberate provocation

Obviously, some statements are made with the deliberate intent to offend you. It's understandable (though not admirable) that in these situations it's hard to overrule that emotional reaction - when someone tries to insult you, it's hard not to be offended.

To see why this is a problem, let's reason by analogy:

When babies are born, they have no bowel control - if their bowel is full, they'll shit. As far as the baby's concerned it's an automatic process.

However, as we grow and develop we learn that although excreting is an automatic process, we can learn to make it a conscious choice. Even if (through some biological problem) we can't do this, we at least recognise it's a fault within ourselves and strive to ameliorate it (for example, with diapers, medication, colostomy bags, and the like).

What seems like an automatic process we have no control over can - with recognition and effort - be mastered and controlled. And the more we practice it, the less difficult it becomes, until our chosen option becomes the automatic one (seriously - when was the last time you took a conscious choice not to shit yourself?).

Likewise, although "being offended" feels for many people as if it's something beyond their control, this is an illusion caused by their own lack of self-control. It's effectively emotional incontinence.

Given this, how fair is it to demand others change their actions based on a flaw within ourselves? It seems to me rather like demanding that everyone else carry around a potty at all times, just in case I want to take a shit.

Applying this reasoning to incontinence makes the reaction seem ludicrous - obviously my lack of self-control is my problem to deal with. Anyone who insisted everyone else has to scramble to solve their own problem while they themselves did nothing would be considered enormously selfish, demanding and immature.

So why when the issue is an emotional lack of control do so many people insist others change their behaviour, instead of asking what it says about them?

Can we as a society stop thinking of "offendedness" as a blameless condition, and start thinking of it as a lack of self-control? Can we stop advocating banning "offensive" things, and instead strive to fix the flaws within ourselves that mean they bother us so much?

Please - if you've remotely enjoyed this post at all, I want you to promise me something. Next time you read or hear something really offensive - something that really makes your blood boil - do me a favour.

Instead of shouting back or demanding something be banned, I want you to sit back, count to ten, and ask yourself

Am I shitting myself in public?

And if you are, and you decide to do it anyway, and then blame it on someone else, what does that say about you?


[1] Epiphanette: like an epiphany, but less-so. An interesting little thought that explains something fairly profound, but isn't really world-shaking enough to qualify as a full-blown epiphany. And no, sadly, it isn't a real word. ;-)


Anonymous said...

How is being offended a flaw?

Shaper said...

Being offended isn't inherently bad, in the same way crapping yourself isn't inherently bad - it's just another state of being.

However, in the same way we don't like to be covered in shit, we generally don't like to be offended. More importantly unlike crapping yourself, when someone gets offended they generally try to change whatever offended them, rather than asking whether the "fault" they perceive is in themselves.

Also, being offended is often an strong emotional reaction - it clouds our judgement and makes us act less rationally. This is inherently bad, because while your judgement should always be informed by your emotions, they should ideally never determine it.

Any clearer? ;-)

Holly said...

This is common sense, not shooting you down because you're absolutely right. It's just a shame that even in this day and time, no one seems to take this as it is.

Even now, councils in England create shitty rules and pathetic laws to curb out free speech in case it MIGHT offend someone. When the truth is as you have said, no one has to be offended at all.

Anonymous said...

brilliant post. solved a long standing problem of mine in one stroke.. thanks a lot

Mars said...

A good post in a brilliant blog. It made me consider my own actions:

Just a while ago I got offended for the first time in a very long time. It was during an engaging, interesting discussion on nuclear energy (obviously one of those hot topics that divide opinions) that was all in all quite high level and seemed to be reaching some sort of consensus. This being on facebook (where one can actually determine the age of posters), a gentleman came out of his way to post a comment stating on how we teenagers couldn't see beyond the next party, let alone plan for the future. Age being one of those things one can't change and also being of no relation to the discussion at hand, I was quite annoyed and even angered. The problem was that I felt guilty afterwards even though I felt utterly justified in my position. You have just explained what the problem was: loss of control, I shat myself in public.

Thank you for letting me know. Now I can do the laundry and possibly buy some new pants.

Wrinkledlion X said...

I've been telling this to people for ages, and it's great to find another person who thinks like I do. All your emotions are contained in your head; unless someone injects them into your brain directly, those brain-chemicals are your own responsibility.

Anonymous said...

We are solely responsible for how we choose to react vs. respond to events; no one can make us become offended! Something may "trigger" us, and then our reaction [knee-jerk] may display offense, but we choose this path. Often b/c of our personal histories, upbringing, values, and learned behaviors that become engrained habits. Think of it this way; someone does something that offends have just become the puppet and they are the person pulling the stings!

Jerome Paul Esteban said...

I was about to take offense to a recent hot topic on the Internet about a videogame. Instead, I remembered this post of yours (which is years old, I know) and took the time to write a blog post about it which reasoned out my feelings.

Here is that article:

Thanks for this.

Mike said...

I love this! I have been saying this to people for a year now - after realizing this myself and consciously choosing to not be offended, my life and social interactions have gotten so much better! I try to explain it the same way but still have trouble getting my closest friends and family to realize that being offended is a choice. Thanks a lot for such a well written piece, I'll show this to them.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. It would be nice if more people thought about their emotions rather than just experiencing them.

Rachel Merritt said...


Anonymous said...

It's nice for you that all those insults carry no consequences for your life if you decide to ignore them. That's not the case for everyone. This is what people mean by "privilege".

Gendered/racialised/identity-based insults serve a rhetorical function (which is to say, they aren't just speech, they're speech that acts on the world). They invoke negative stereotypes and associations, and often serve as an implied threat. For instance, when an African-American person is called by the N-word, this often carries an unspoken baggage of "behave as I want you to behave or violence will ensue" - often delivered by people who are either in authority themselves, or who have the confident expectation that authority will favour their side of any dispute regardless of the merits of the case. It also reinforces in-group/out-group status, and serves a range of social functions that strengthen the position of the speaker at the target's expense. The use of violent language against women serves a similar function.

For people who experience these things all their life, the responses to encountering the word are not solely a matter of abstract choice; strongly programmed biological responses also come into play. This does not make them unreasonable, it makes them human beings living in human brains and bodies in highly unreasonable situations.

Yes, those people have the option to attempt to ignore or control that biological response when they are attacked with these words - and the fact of the matter is that they DO, far more often than privileged people ever have to ignore less-loaded insults. So giving them this advice is actually incredibly patronising.

The question is not whether they should decide not to take offence. As I said, they already do make that decision incredibly often. It's whether they should have to do so quite so much, when doing so is a great deal more work than ignoring less loaded insults, insults that don't come with histories of centuries of very real violence based on hate and lies. You need to control your physical responses, and perform the cognitive work of assessing whether the speaker is threatening you, seeking to manipulate you, ignorant, selfish, stupid, and/or misunderstanding social cues. Meanwhile, other opportunities to participate in the conversation more advantageously may be missed.

You may counter that if people make the decision to consider all those other questions rather than other opportunities that's their loss. But how to engage with those other opportunities (and whether they're really available for you) is hugely informed by what people meant by the insult or stereotype. You can't appropriately respond to the opportunities without considering the other questions as well.

Given that these things by their nature target people who are already disadvantaged, and serve to reinforce and exacerbate the existing unfairness that is another legacy of the systems of power that gave us those hateful words, to object to the use of these words (especially in public discourse) is not to make an irrational decision to "take" offence.

Rather it is an attempt to remove the unfair cognitive and emotional tax that some people face and others do not, based on nothing other than arbitrary demographic characteristics.

(And this is just verbal insult. Let's not forget that the are other behaviours that play out between bodies and also have physical and symbolic effects.)

c baker said...

Does that mean it's okay for me to say, "nigger" and I'm not responsible for the feelings of the other person who happens to be black?

R.R. Smith said...

"Given that these things by their nature target people who are already disadvantaged, and serve to reinforce and exacerbate the existing unfairness that is another legacy of the systems of power that gave us those hateful words, to object to the use of these words (especially in public discourse) is not to make an irrational decision to "take" offence."

That is not "Given," that is your opinion.
Taking offense and objecting are not synonymous.

Taking offense is a decision 100% of the time, that is the point of this post, I'm sorry you can't understand that, and provide constructive discourse.

Bryan Hemming said...

What a ridiculous idea! It is the person who feels offended by what they consider offensive who gets to decide. The offender is entitled to disagree, but not to decide whether it is offensive or not, as offenders have already decided, one way or another and can change their minds to suit the reaction.

If you apply the same logic across the board then rapists decide what is rape and thieves get to decide what is theirs. That basically means we end up with offenders deciding what is wrong or right for their victims. I should've never bothered reading such a waste of time.

Shaper said...


Can you clarify who you're responding to? Which idea in particular is ridiculous?

It sounds like you're arguing against the assertion that "the speaker gets to decide whether a statement is offensive or not"... only reading back over my original post and the earlier comments, I can't actually see anyone making that assertion.

Bryan Hemming said...


I'm responding to the article, not to a particular comment, though I could be responding to many.

I make an analogy with rape and theft simply because this sentence contains one of the most silly parallels I have ever read:

"When babies are born, they have no bowel control - if their bowel is full, they'll shit. As far as the baby's concerned it's an automatic process." and the rubbish that follows.

It raises some very serious questions about your powers of logic.

So as you deal in extremes, let's take an extreme example to reveal the paucity of your generalisation.

Let's take a hypothetical situation where you are living on a rough housing estate and a gang of local biffs accuse you of being a paedophile in front of your neighbours. Judging by your article to be offended by such an accusation would be wrong, but let's try to be clinical about it and try to judge if any offence has actually being caused.

As you seem to be have been rather selective on your definition of offensive and what being offended actually means, perhaps I ought to give you a few pointers to illustrate that things aren't quite as simple as you say.

In law an offence isn't subjective, so calling someone a paedohile, who is not a padophile, constitutes criminal libel. In other words it is an offence agains the law, which is abstract.

But that doesn't take into account your neighbours, and the people calling you a paedophile, and what they might consider offensive. They could take the view that you have not only committed an offence against a child, but behaved in a way they find extremely offensive, and that requires immediate retribution. So how do you react, if the offence is - like beauty - only in the eye of the beholder? Don't you think that, in a case where your chief accuser makes the accusation knowing you are not a paedophile, you might feel rather offended? Or even terrified, perhaps?

Of course, You may take offence to the example - oh, I forgot, you don't do that - anyhow, your family make take offence when the offenders shout at them in the street and thrust excrement wrapped in a newpaper through your letterbox.

So now you will talk about 'feeling' offended, and how we should not 'feel' offended, which you might try to say is different somehow.

When people tell me how I should feel, I feel offended, as I had a father who constantly told me how I should not feel when he caused me both physical and emotional pain.

I find this little musing offensive, but I will not take revenge or question your right to freedom of speech. In fact I support it. But to make victims feel guilt for taking offence is almost fascist in concept.

Bryan Hemming said...

@ Shaper.

In addition to my earlier comments I would just like to add that the better and more simple advice would be to ask people to refrain from causing offence, before advising victims to accept any insults with equanimity.

Your middle class Buddhist philosphising only gives a licence to bullies to insult, degrade, libel and abuse the disadvantaged at will. I could easily see Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith telling us same sort of thing as a prelude to introducing demeaning and offensive austerity measures aimed at the poor. If only you could see it.

In a caring world we offer support to victims, not licences to offenders.

Anonymous said...

this is an eye opener for me, changed my life...thanks

Anonymous said...

I disagree that this I a license for bullies to insult and make everyone a victim.
I can decide whether I feel offended or not....and that is the change
its my decision. I still can beat the crap out of somebody trying to bully me
but I do not do it in rage...

Erik said...

@Bryan Hemming makes the unfortunate mistake so common among people who self-victimize, conflating "offense" with actual harm.

Being offended is truly a choice. It truly is. This is not up for debate. Those who do not realize this are willfully giving away power to others. The power over choice and response.

Ironically, this attitude has the exact opposite result of what Bryan hopes to achieve, decreasing the power of those that don't have it. There is also mounting evidence thus does psychological damage.

Choose not to be offended. Take power. Be liberated.

Mitchell Sommer said...

So say person 1 says something to person 2, and this something that they say promotes or encourages a stereotype of who person 1 is (race, religion, etc.). Should person 2 not be offended by something that further feeds a stereotype of who they are? Shouldn't being offended be an emotional response to something that can potentially negatively affect a person (person 2, in this situation) down the road?

For example, if an African American person is watching a talk show, and on this talk show, someone makes a joke about black people not being able to swim or black people being criminals, shouldn't the African American viewer be offended by this joke because it can feed a stereotype? Feeding a stereotype on TV can make it appear acceptable to some viewers that these jokes are okay to say; then they (the viewers) might start making the jokes. What if the African American viewer in the beginning of this example goes to a job interview, and the interviewer is one of those viewers who has subconsciously further accepted one of these stereotypes by hearing one of these jokes in public or on TV? This could affect the possibility of whether or not the African American viewer gets the job depending on how easily swayed the interviewer's views are by one of these jokes he or she heard. So because of this hypothetical situation, shouldn't the African American viewer from the beginning of the example be offended by such jokes he hears on TV?

Szifers said...

This article is painfully illogical. You are pointing out that some people are more tolerant to offense than others. That some people have more emotional self-control than others. And from that you conclude that being offended is a choice. It doesn't follow. That's not a logical conclusion.

Even if there was an explicitly laid out program for improving one's emotional self-control that worked exactly the same for everyone, that still wouldn't make being offended a choice.

You may be able to train your stomach muscles so that you are immune to my punches. And your getting hurt is not a reaction that I can "necessarily predict ahead of time". But the fact that I can not predict it doesn't mean that I'm not to blame. On the contary: I must know that I can't predict it, so I must be aware of the possible consequences of my actions.

Zamrod said...

The problem is that there are as many ways to take offense as there are to cause offense. You could think that Barney the dinosaur is the greatest character ever created and have a real emotional bond because he got you through some hard times in your life. You might take great offense to someone saying how stupid he is.

But the person speaking has no idea about your great attachment to Barney the dinosaur. There's no particular reason to believe comments about him would cause offense to anyone. So, you can't reliably predict offense in anyone. Since literally ANYTHING could offend someone, it would actually require you to never do or say ANYTHING to purposefully avoid offending anyone.

Which is why it's important what the article says: Offense is taken, not given. When you are the person who gets offended when people make fun of Barney, you need to understand that people aren't TRYING to hurt you when they make fun of Barney. It isn't normal to be offended by that so no one expects it. So, you learn not to blame people who say bad things about Barney.

And that's the key. You can disagree with things that are said. That's fine. I think the key is that "Offended" implies a strong emotional response and a large amount of blame being put on the "Offender".

For instance, if someone calls me fat, I can say "Wow, that's not very nice of them. Maybe I won't hang out with them if that's the way they feel about me." but that's a very different reaction from being "offended" where my reaction is "How DARE they call me names? They shouldn't be allowed to do that to me! Let's all agree that no one should make me feel this way ever again!"

Zamrod said...

@Mitchell Sommer

You can dislike people saying bad things about Black people. That's fine, but there's a difference between an intellectual response to something said to you and an emotional one. You can control your emotions so you don't over-inflate something bad that has been said.

Though your example requires a lot of what ifs: What if someone sees it, and what if that makes someone think the jokes are ok, and what if people start to tell those jokes all the time, what if the guy giving you the job interview has heard these jokes, what if that has the power to break into his mind and change his opinion about Black people instead of just treating them like jokes that are separate from real life, what if that person then decides to base his hiring decision on this new opinion of Black people?

Basically, it requires a series of circumstances that are nearly impossible in order to reach that conclusion. The problem is that there is no scientific evidence at all that hearing a joke on TV creates a huge societal change. But someone suggested that it MIGHT be a possibility a while back and ever since the internet has been treating it as if it is 100% proven.

There's been a couple of extremely small scale studies done where they can get people to rate racist statements 1-2 points higher as being true on a 1-10 scale after hearing racism jokes. But most of them went from 2 to 4....still not true, but slightly more true. There was also no follow up to determine if the effect of the jokes lasted longer than an hour.

But, as usually happens on the internet, someone reported it with the headline "Jokes determined to have an effect on people's opinions" along with opinion pieces about how jokes are creating a culture of oppression for women and minorities and that anyone who makes jokes is adding to that culture since jokes change everyone's minds whether they want them changed or not. You can't help it. So by making these jokes, you are oppressing everyone.

Which everyone believed. And it's become such a staple in our culture these days that no one questions its validity.

Without that long chain of events leading to someone not getting a job, then all that happened was that someone made a joke that was in poor taste on TV.