Cecil the lion. Starbucks Christmas “holiday” cups. Everything Donald Trump says. These days, there is much to be offended about. But for every one person who is offended, there seems to be 10 more who are offended that anyone is offended, and 20 more who are offended that the argument is happening in the first place. A dizzying number of grievances and the endless debates they inspire, perpetuated and exacerbated by social media, has likely contributed to a general consensus of exasperation with “being offended.” Trending Twitter hashtag “OffendACollegeStudent” is one recent example of said exasperation. This kind of public indifference can be a poison to progress and might be allayed if these five principles were more often observed.
GO AHEAD AND BE OFFENDED
To take offense is an emotional reflex and, as such, it is instant and involuntary. The emotions experienced when you encounter an offensive situation can come in many forms; I commonly feel outrage or shame. For example, am I offended when I see a dress code that focuses on women’s clothing? Yes, because when I hear a laundry list of my attire called “inappropriate,” my reaction is instant: shame. Was I offended when recreational big-game hunter Walter Palmer killed Cecil the lion? Yes. When I read that a creature we have so few of was killed for fun, my reaction was instant: outrage. Being offended is a good thing. It shows that you are aware of your environment and possess a sense of justice, equality, and compassion for others.
Furthermore, don’t be afraid to use the publicity of one controversy to highlight another. A great example is the “Why Not Wolves” campaign, a campaign that highlighted the overhunting of American wolves and implored those who cared about Cecil to not forget about wolves. This does not minimize one situation in favor of another but simply informs the public of other related situations.
REALIZE THAT BEING OFFENDED IS INDEED A PERSONAL PROBLEM
If you have a strong negative reaction to a situation, you are entitled to that reaction. What you are not entitled to is anyone caring that you are offended. You must convince them to care. If you choose to address a situation that offends you, keep in mind what you are admitting to. If you tell someone that the language they are using makes you feel worthless or small, they are much more likely to view this as a genuine moment of vulnerability and react in a compassionate way. If you proclaim that their use of language is, say, “offensive to women” you have depersonalized the problem and simultaneously attacked the speaker. Now they will likely become defensive and brush off your complaint, possibly souring their mind on the subject permanently.
To be offended is not to be superior to all those who are not. To be offended is simply to be emotionally vulnerable. You should not be demanding that a person change their behavior but divulging how their behavior makes you feel. If they choose to care, they may change. But if you approach your personal indignation as their problem and not your own, the blowback will likely be counterproductive.
GAUGE WHETHER YOU ARE OFFENDED OR IF YOU THINK YOU SHOULD BE OFFENDED
Consider what truly offends you and what does not. A lot of song lyrics, Daniel Tosh jokes, and Tucker Max stories are quite offensive but I still find myself laughing (or dancing). Donald Trump does not offend me because I am not surprised by anything he says, therefore my reaction is usually an eye-roll. And I had no reaction whatsoever to the red Starbucks cups, unless you count my delight at the fact that the eggnog latte is back. I have to choose my battles, and these just didn’t make the cut.
YOU ARE NOT THE JUDGE OF WHAT IS OR IS NOT OFFENSIVE
However, just because something does not offend you does not mean it is not offensive. I cringe whenever I hear someone say, “You shouldn’t be worried about [insert your issue] when there is [insert national/global problem] still happening.” Keep in mind that telling someone that their negative situation is nothing compared to this negative situation is akin to telling someone that they shouldn’t be happy about something small when there are much greater things to be happy about. As someone who has spent time following that line of thinking, trust me when I say that the rabbit hole of relativizing leads to only one place: a place where nothing matters at all.
One of the top images on Twitter under the StarbucksRedCup hashtag is one of Raif Hadawi, a Saudi man who was publicly flogged and imprisoned for insulting Islam. Underneath his short bio comes, “Meanwhile Christians in America suffer unbearable persecution from unadorned coffee cups.” This is unhelpful in every possible way. For one, it assumes that all Christians are complaining about the cups. What likely happened was that a relatively small group of people complained and their complaints were instantly blown out of proportion. Furthemore, it trivializes legitimate persecution of Christians by proclaiming that these cups are the only way in which Christians are slighted in America. Lastly, the image implies that unless you are physically beaten and imprisoned, your strife is not important enough to matter. Perspective is important, yes, but that does not mean one should only pay attention to issues that occur on a national scale. We don’t live our lives on a national scale. We live our lives one day at a time, in one place, in one body, where the little things matter and the small problems can be the most insidious.
YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY TO POLICE OTHERS’ REACTIONS
After the terrorist attacks on Paris, social media went crazy with outrage, and rightfully so. Oddly, however, much of it was not directed at the terrorists who actually committed the atrocities. Much of it was directed at those who didn’t say the right thing or who didn’t say enough. I came across a post on Twitter that proclaimed “The hostages in Paris don’t give a f**k that your band has or will play there you rancid narcissists.” This is not helpful. If you are going to be upset, keep in mind who you should be upset with. Do not allow your anger to be redirected because you have personally decided what is appropriate and what is not. Believe it or not, being righteously offended by someone making a national tragedy “about them” is just another way of making a national tragedy about you. You are not the PC Police and have no authority over the words of others. Remember that leading by example is the strongest way to lead.
Be offended. It means you have feelings. But understand what truly offends you and choose your actions carefully. Don’t waste your time being offended by others being offended. Let them be angry and if the issue doesn’t bother you, don’t turn it into something that does. And lastly, don’t micromanage others’ anger. As the Buddha said, “to conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others.”