A courtier told Constantine that a mob had broken the head of his statue with stones. The emperor lifted his hands to his head, saying: “It is very surprising, but I don’t feel hurt in the least”. What a wonderful response! In the political correct atmosphere of today he most likely would have taken offense!
Some time ago I wrote an essay which I titled “Who has got the problem?”
Recently I have written essays on Islamist and Indigenous issues. Some have complained that my utterances might be construed as offensive. I am therefore motivated to revisit some of the themes from my previous essay.
I am moved to talk again about the cowardly tactic of taking offense and the demeaning practice of acting like a victim! It seems that in today’s politically correct world the best way of avoiding confronting divergent views is to take offense. I am not a psychologist, but it seems to me that taking offense is really just an emotional response from someone trying to manipulate another to put aside their point of view to avoid a rational debate.
Most of those who take affront when confronted with ideas and opinions that are contrary to their own are indulging in this subterfuge.
In my role as an executive coach I try to teach managers mechanisms to be able to determine in a corporate environment “who owns the problem”. Many managers are diverted from their proper roles by trying to solve problems that are not real or problems that really belong to someone else.
It is difficult for us to accept (again because of the clever defence mechanisms of the egoic mind) that we might actually be the source of the problem and not others. How many of us can accept that truly insightful statement by the author and diarist Anais Nin that “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
This implies that oftimes our suffering is augmented by our inappropriate sense of self and that our perceived suffering is not due to any external cause but due to the fact that it has successfully repelled unwanted challenges to the narrative that sustains our ego.
This behaviour is built upon a commonly accepted error – that error is that other people are somehow responsible for my emotions. We learn it when we are young.
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” (since re-released as “Relating Redefined”) 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 favorable 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.
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.”
In the previous essay (published April 2012) I gave some examples.
Just recently two NATO personnel allegedly incinerated some copies of the Koran in a landfill site near the Bagram airbase. It is reported that this was not an intentional act but simply occurred because NATO personnel were simply disposing of old documents and waste products and were unaware that copies of Islam’s holy book were among the rubbish.
Some Afghan labourers came across the site and rescued the mutilated Korans and used this as evidence the NATO personnel had been profaning their religion. The American president apologised for these inadvertent activities. NATO promised that within ten days every one of its soldiers in Afghanistan would receive training in how to handle the religious sensitivities of the Muslim population.
If you go back to the question of where the problem lies here, I think this is a disproportionate response. I would maintain that the problem lies with those with the exaggerated sensitivities (read fragile sense of ego and inappropriate worldviews) rather than those who inadvertently burnt the Korans. In the meantime, to assuage their delusion, militant Muslims have killed NATO personnel seeking vengeance for this supposed affront. Again I ask, “Who has got the problem?”
Let me state clearly that I have no particular brook against Islam. I have read extensively about the world religions (which of course many religious believers haven’t) and I find it no better or worse than most other mainstream religions. My criticism is not against the adherents of Islam but the behaviour of those who have been so easily provoked. They would assert that their actions demonstrate their faith. I would assert their actions demonstrate their insecurity.
I suppose the major arenas of victimhood and offence are religion, race, and sexuality.
It is easy to find confirming evidence from each of these arenas. But for brevity let me choose an example relating to the issue of race.
The West Australian Police Commissioner, Karl O’Callaghan released crime statistics that showed high levels of involvement by Aboriginal youth. He was subsequently accused by the head of the Aboriginal Legal Service of inciting racial hatred.
These are facts that are indisputable. Surely they should be allowed into the public arena.
I have been involved in trying to improve the lot of indigenous Australians. I feel for them and am supportive of any reasonable intervention that might improve their lot. But I fail to see how resiling from the facts helps in any way at all.
There are many other examples I could give you where people choose to take offense rather than have their dysfunctional world views confronted. I don’t think it is helpful when we choose silly notions of political correctness over robust debate and disclosure of indisputable fact. As I suggested before, it is more appropriate to ask, “Who has got the problem?”
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.
It is very unlikely that I would rely on a quote from one of the founders of the Christian Scientists movement but we must recognize wisdom from whatever source it emanates. Mary Baker Eddy wrote:
“To punish ourselves for others’ faults is superlative folly. The mental arrow shot from another’s bow is practically harmless, unless our own thought barbs it.”