On Taking Offense

People frequently get upset upon hearing things said by others, to the point where we are required to use euphemisms in order to blunt the meaning of what we say. I have always found this interesting and frustrating, since I am generally not one to get offended. Granted, I have an ego the size of a blimp, but there must be more to it than that. Being offended seems to me the most useless of states of mind, and in fact harmful for healthy communication and personal self esteem. So I’m going to try to explain why you should never be offended. This is, obviously, much harder in practice than in theory, but any reduction would be beneficial. What does it even mean to be “offended”?

Let’s start with the source of offense: the offending statement. Any statement (or question) is either accurate or inaccurate. This is true of both facts (including items presented as facts) and opinions. Both inaccurate and accurate statements can be offensive, but why?

Inaccurate (at least as perceived by the offendee) items are probably the most offensive. These are statements that the receiver does not agree with. If I tell you that “you suck,” for example, you might get offended because you don’t think that you suck. But why get upset by such a thing? If you don’t think it’s true, why do you care? You care because you don’t want others to consider you sucky. But if you are confident with your belief that you, in fact, don’t suck at all, then knowing that this should completely prevent you from feeling offended. Seriously, the other person is wrong. So feel free to be annoyed, but being offended is a useless response to someone saying something false to you.

The same thing is true of less personal statements. For example, when someone accuses an organization or institution (such as a religion) as being somehow bad, members of that institution will frequently be offended. I would guess this is because people define themselves through institutions in which they are members, so insults to the institution are perceived as personal attacks. But again, if one is confident that the insulting statement is inaccurate, what’s the problem?

More interesting, people are very frequently offended when they hear things that are true. For example, if someone is overweight and another individual refers to that person as “fat,” the overweight individual will nearly always be offended. This makes absolutely no sense, because it is a true statement. I’m sure you can come up with more examples. So why does someone get offended by the truth? The answer is simple; that individual does not like the truth. However, not liking the truth does not make it untrue, and you have no right to require that someone else hide the truth because of your sensitivity.

This brings me to an important point. If you don’t like the truth of a situation, change it. If you are offended when someone refers to you as fat, it is because you are forced to acknowledge something about yourself that you don’t like. So instead of being offended, just change the offending problem.

Of course, not all things can be changed. If this is true of something, or if you simply have no desire to change that thing, then the most healthy option is to accept it. I admit that this is roughly a billion times easier said than done, but think of the boost to your self esteem. And, just as importantly, think how much healthier communication with others will be when individuals aren’t implicitly acknowledging things that “can’t be said.” This is especially true in religious, political, or other highly tense discussion.

So, taking offense to things is the most useless of responses. If you disagree with an offending statement, just stop and think, “then why do I care?” If you agree with an offending statement, sit back and think, “wait, but this is true! Why am I offended by this? Is it because I find this truth uncomfortable? If so, can I change it?”

4 thoughts on “On Taking Offense

  1. I think you make several valid statements here, but there is one thing that I disagree with.

    You argue that offense is the most useless of responses to a situation, but I think that offense is actually one of the most acute and capable indicators of dis-satisfaction, making it extremely useful. Without offense, which often is a knee-jerk response, there can be no introspection as you alluded to in your essay. Offense is one of the most ingrained platforms from which change can spring. Once you have identified the offense, you can work to change the situation. But without an offense, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, in the first place, how would you know that change is in order?

    Perhaps I am using a more liberal definition of offense than you are, but I think that without this particular response, personal and social change can’t take place. And granted, many people get offended and then proceed to play the victim, but if properly utilized (both in giving and receiving), offense can be quite a useful tool to have.

  2. Good point. However, I think most people could recognize error in a statement whether or not they are offended by it. They can also recognize their own discomfort with the truth of a statement. Neither of these require being offended.

    So, you’re right that offense is somewhat useful as a knee-jerk response. But I don’t think it’s at all necessary.

  3. If you’re discomfited by a statement, it’s because you’re offended on some level by it.

  4. I disagree, though with the “some level’ quantity it’s a little hard to disprove your claim. I don’t see why you must be offended by something just because you don’t like the reality of it.

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