Taking Offense

Because of its implications on our rights to free speech, I have been following with some interest the Andrew Bolt case. He was recently convicted under the Racial Discrimination Act of racial vilification. In his judgment against Bolt on Wednesday, Judge Mordecai Bromberg stated, “I am satisfied that fair skinned aboriginal people, or some of them, were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles….”

I don’t intend to dispute the judge’s finding under law. I want to question an almost universally held notion on which the judgment was based. In my essay this week I want to discuss the giving and taking of offense.

Now I have made the point many times in my little weekly essays that there is only one person responsible for my inner sense of well-being – and that is me! It is an erroneous notion that other people are responsible for our emotional state.

In fact what normally has happened is that we have learnt (unconsciously through no fault of our own) how to use our emotional responses to manipulate other people.

There is a great little book that the good Dr Phil put me onto many years ago called “Declare Yourself” (now out of print I believe) by John Narciso and David Burkett. They talked about “get-my–way–behaviours”. These behaviours used victim responses to gain the sympathy of, or create a sense of guilt in others in order to have such people respond in ways more favourable to the perceived victims.

They drew on the work of Robert McKinley, a psychiatrist in San Antonio.

They wrote, “Most get-my-way techniques can be lumped under three broad headings: helplessness, suffering, and anger. These are learned responses to interpersonal situations that aren’t going the way we want them to go.”

And of course taking offense is a classic form of suffering. Under this scheme I make noises about being affronted so that people might feel sorry for me or acquire a sense of guilt and thus help me change the situation more in my favour. That it is a successful technique can be evidenced by the judge’s response above.

This particular form of get-my-way behaviour contains an internal incongruence. Suppose you say something that (I erroneously believe) hurt my feelings. I then blame you for an intentional affront. But my negative behaviour that comes as a result of this imagined affront I blame on you as well. That is I believe that you determine my behaviour, but I allow myself to believe that your behaviour is entirely at your discretion.

As the good Dr Phil says:

“The negative emotional behaviour of others that manifests in aggressive or obnoxious behaviour towards oneself is viewed as deliberate and intentional, however, the negative emotional behaviour of oneself that manifests in aggressive or obnoxious behaviour in response to that other person’s behaviour is generally attributed to the other person as well!”

“Your negative behaviour is deliberate and intentionally offensive. Mine is merely a natural and necessary ‘defense’ against yours and is therefore caused by you.”

Buddhism teaches us that all suffering comes from attachment. The attachment that is threatened in these exchanges is our attachment to a sense of self that is threatened by the behaviour of someone else. Consequently those who are most likely to take offense are those with the most fragile sense of self. (Colloquially, we call them “thin-skinned”.)

We might wonder then are those who are not “thin-skinned” more insensitive? Are such people likely to be less concerned for the welfare of others? Well, as it turns out this is not the case. Those with a more robust sense of self don’t have to be so defensive of their sense of self. They therefore aren’t distracted by imagined slights and can therefore be more objective. As a result they are more likely to be compassionate, because they don’t waste their efforts in defending themselves they are more likely to be able to identify with the issues others face.

One of the regular sayings of the good Dr Phil is that, “Offense is never given – it is only ever taken.” Which of course implies that it is up to the potential “victim” to determine whether they take offense or not! And the offense not taken, where does it go – well it is likely to return to the perpetrator.

Here is a helpful little parable that I have used elsewhere that concerns this issue.

In the early days of Buddhism the Buddha incurred the wrath of the Brahmins, the Indian priestly caste. The Buddha preached that human beings didn’t need an intermediary between themselves and the gods in order to obtain happiness. Because this was exactly the role that the Brahmins wanted to perform they were naturally very threatened by the Buddha’s words.

One day the Buddha sat on the ground in a clearing with thirty or forty of the local villagers eager to hear what he had to say. He had only been speaking for a few minutes before a Brahmin strode into the clearing. He walked up and down in front of the Buddha while he was speaking and began to abuse him using rough language.
The Buddha on hearing these outbursts fell silent. Eventually, after much ranting and raving, the Brahmin ran out of steam.

When there was silence, the Buddha who had been sitting quietly listening said, “Brahmin, do you ever have guests in your house?”

The Brahmin answered, “Of course we have guests in our house.”

“When you have guests in your house do you offer them food and drink?”

“Certainly – we always offer hospitality to our guests.”

“And if they don’t accept your hospitality, if they don’t accept your food and drinks, pray tell me, to whom does it belong?”

Getting a little angry now, the Brahmin said loudly, “Of course it belongs to me! It belongs to me!”

And so it is with offense – if not accepted it belongs still with the one who tried (even unconsciously) to deliver it.

But it is helpful for us to know that most often when we believe that people have tried to offend us, this is not likely to be true. Again as we have seen in past discussions when we impugn intent to human behaviour we are most often wrong. Most of us have learnt a repertoire of behaviours which we draw on when given an environmental cue and automatically elicit the behaviour we associate with such circumstances. The brain being not rational, but rationalizing, then generates a reason for us to explain our action even though the behaviour was not determined by any rational process.

The renowned Stanford psychologist, Philip Zimbardo says “The fundamental flaw in all our thinking is the natural tendency to attribute deliberate intent to human behaviour” This he maintains is one of the major sources of problems in interpersonal relationships.

There is a lovely little Buddhist parable that addresses this issue.

A man has rowed a boat out into the middle of a river. He casts out an anchor and reclines back in the boat. It is dusk and over to the west there is a magnificent sunset. He lays back his eyes fixated on the beautiful display in the sky that nature is providing. He is filled with contentment.

Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he becomes aware of another boat approaching. But then he relaxes. Surely the oarsman will notice him and take steps to avoid a collision.

Again he lays back and enjoys the gorgeous hues of the sunset.

But soon after he notices that the other boat is approaching dangerously close to him.

What impertinence is this? The boatman is bearing down on him with no concern for his welfare should the boats collide.

The man stands up and berates the boatman. “Turn aside”, he says. “Have you no concern for others?”

But inexorably the boat comes closer and closer. Finally it strikes the boat that the man is standing in. He is full of rage at such a travesty.

But then he looks closely at the other boat and to his amazement there is no one in it.

It is merely a boat that has broken free of its moorings and the current has taken it downstream to its chance collision.

Most of what people take offense to are such events!

Now I am not advocating that we should all now be affronting others with callous or insulting remarks. That is not appropriate either. The problem is whenever we have a victim mentality we believe that our only solution to our problems is that others must change. How much more effective it is if we can change. If either through our behavioural manipulation of others or indeed even as we saw above through interventions of the court, we change the behaviours of some people we still remain vulnerable to the perceived slights and insults of others. If we become psychologically more robust we remove this threat whatever our circumstances and irrespective of who we have to deal with.

From Buddhism we learn that afflictive emotions arise from attachment. In the case of taking offense, the attachment we have is to a sense of self that we are trying to preserve. If you follow Dr Harker’s formula for attaining psychological robustness (Know Yourself>Accept Yourself>Forget Yourself) and have advanced to that final stage where you can forget yourself there is nothing left to defend, and your equanimity won’t be affronted by the words, however inappropriate, of others. Our society would be a far better place if we spent a little less effort in reducing the slights and a lot more effort in building resilience.

Buddhists advise that afflictive emotions are countered by mindfulness. When we cultivate mindfulness we increase our awareness. We come to know we are not our thoughts or our emotions – these are ephemeral phenomena that we can watch come and go. With this increased awareness we can see negative emotions beginning to arise and can see them objectively for what they are. This awareness leaves us a space where we can intervene and not take on the emotion.

Let me leave the last word to that wonderful, inspirational Jesuit, Anthony De Mello. In his book “Awareness” he exhorted people to “Wake Up”. Part of the process he advocated was as follows:
1. Identify the negative feelings in you;
2. Understand they are in you, not in the world, not an external reality;
3. Do not see them as an essential part of “I” – these things come and go;
4. Understand that when you change, everything changes.

Well, there are a few thoughts about the nonsense of “Taking Offense”. I trust I haven’t offended anybody but hopefully if I have and you have understood the arguments above you will now know that’s your problem and not mine!

9 Replies to “Taking Offense”

  1. Thanks ted, very thought provoking.
    However, surely we should not tolerate poor behaviour, or inappropriate comments in workplace situations? Ie ifwe strengthen our resilience & ignore bullying or harassing behaviour surely we are really condoning the behaviour.
    I am expanding your notion of ” taking offence”

  2. Thanks for your comment Helen.

    No I am not advocating that people should be insulting or thoughtless in their dealings with others.

    However if we are more resilient those inappropriate comments are not likely to hurt us. Many of those who behave in this inappropriate way are gratified by the emotional response of their victims. As a result when we don’t respond emotionally we also remove some of the incentive for that poor behaviour.

    I would never condone people doung things that they believe are deliberately hurtful But I would also maintain that we have choice about how to respond to such hurtful jibes.

    If we don’t take offense not only is our own equanimity maintained but we also remove an incentive for such future behaviour from our intended tormentors.

  3. Ted,

    I was living in London at the time Salman Rushdie was under fatwa for his book “The Satanic Verses”. What struck me at the time was how the perceived offence was considered so “sacrosanct” that the media, politicians and ordinary citizens were prepared to ignore the extraordinary behaviour of people burning books in the street and openly calling for the death of a fellow citizen who had done nothing more than write a book of fiction (and which most people have never read, which is a shame because its a great book).

    Christopher Hitchens also has a lot to say on this as well. Along the lines of: if I speak the truth and you take offence, that’s your problem. But also, if my opinion is different than yours and you take offence, so what, it’s not my job to avoid giving offence to you.

    In recent times, it seems that the expression “I find that offensive” has become code for “Shut up, I don’t want to listen to you”.

    My two cents worth. And if I’ve given offence to anyone, well I almost certainly don’t care!


  4. It is an interesting phenomena Bruno that you refer to. It seems that fundamentalists are more offendable than others! As I intimated in my article it is because their egoes are built on something that is very vulnerable! If I based my sense of who I am on the literal translation of some religious tome that had dubious historical authenticity I might feel compelled to resort to such travesties as well! (But I suspect not.)

    I don’t always agree with Hitchens (but I usually do) and he is certainly courageous. I only wish I could write as well as he does!

    Our humanity is always curtailed when we are constrained from putting our points of view to the world on issues – and most particularly the contentious issues. We should be robust enough to hear the things that challenge us without demeaning those who think differently.

  5. Another example. The traditional and long hated defamatory term used to describe African Americans… the dreaded N word. Not game to put it in print. This word is now routinely used in Black American comedy and music and even as a term of endearment within this group. However if a white American were to use it would be immediate grounds for harassment claims. Clearly the word does not offend just the perceived intentions of the speaker and those perceptions are outside the speakers control.

  6. Thanks Greg.

    I read an interesting piece today by Brendan O’Neill that you might appreciate. In part it read:

    “…as Bolt discovered, criticising the fatalistic and narrow-minded politics of identity, which is a perfectly legitimate intellectual exercise, can be interpreted as’racial discrimination’ and censored by courts of law. Likewise Christians who oppose gay marriage are accused of ‘homophobia’, journalists who attack the burka or the Koran are denounced as ‘Islamophobic’ and, as I discovered recently, commentators who criticise a feminist campaign to ban the sale of certain T-shirts in Topman can be branded misogynistic’.

    Again and again codes and laws that are presented to us as necessary mechanisms for the protection of weak people’s self-esteem actually end up criminalising the expression of political beliefs and ideological views. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that today’s so-called Offended Minority is merely a Trojan horse for the reintroduction of political censorship and the moral straitjacketing of public debate.”

  7. I rather like Brendan O’Neill. He’s seems to have a very good ability to cut through to the underlying issue.

    His direct style though found him on the receiving end of a very hostile panel and audience on Q&A a few weeks ago. Which again reinforces the point he made in the same article in relation to the recent censorship case regarding Bolt. The judge not only censored the content but also censured him for his style!

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