Taking Offense

Taking Offense


offensensitivityB: An interesting case of making choices comes in whether or not to take offense in something.  To clarify, what we usually mean when we say we are offended is that “we feel insulted, mistreated, snubbed, or disrespected.”  You might be surprised to know that you always have a choice about whether or not you’re offended by something1.  It may have always been so well assumed that things or people cause offense in others, to the point that it’s become part of the language, so that you hear things like “he offended me” or “I was offended by him,” putting the blame of the offense, which one chose to take, on somebody else.

A: That offends me.

B: And whose fault is that?  Mine or yours?

A: Yours, of course.

B: And that’s where I’m going to say that you’re wrong.  No offense.

A: None taken.

B: That’s the spirit.  You didn’t take any offense because you chose not to, and in fact, no matter what I do, you need not take any offense, regardless of whether I insult your appearance, intellect, upbringing, ancestry, family, friends, race, religion, or the same of anybody else’s!  You always have a choice in the matter.  Not only that, there is no need to retaliate.  Most often, if there is retaliation, it’s due to somebody having chosen to take offense.  But even if they hadn’t, “turning the other cheek” is generally the more peaceful option, if only because it deprives the would-be offender of some desired reaction he may want out of his target.

A: Wait, are you saying if some guy decks me, I’m supposed to just sit there and let him pound my face in?!

B: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to defend yourself from physical or bodily harm.  I’m just saying there’s no need to harbor enmity; i.e., hate the guy for decking you – in other words, don’t take it personally.

A: What?!  How can you not take something like that personally?!

B: …And neither did I say it was easy, buddy.  Calm down!

(A appears to have taken offense)

B: Here, have a drink.  You’ll feel better.

A: Enough with the condescending speech already.

B: Why don’t you take a good, long think about this quote: “he who takes offense when there is none intended is a fool, but he who takes offense when it is intended is a greater fool.”2

(A takes a good long think)

A: Well, OK.  Obviously it’s silly for somebody to take offense if it wasn’t even intended.  But when one can see that the other person is trying to goad him on, get his goat or a reaction or whatever, and yet still gets upset at the other person – which, again, was the other person’s object anyway – he has fallen prey to something even more base; that is, the baiting of his anger, or his “enmity,” as you put it.  So I can see why he might be considered the greater fool.  But what does this cute little saying have to do with what you were talking about?

B: Oh, I dunno.  It seemed like a good thing to bring up.  Plus you were getting all mad.

(A seethes further into his anger and lemonade)

B: But back to taking offense in general.  This is such a sensitive topic nowadays; people seem to take offense for nearly every little thing.  What may be especially odd is that people actually take offense for others; that is, even when the supposedly offensive thing isn’t directed toward them, they take offense at it and retaliate toward those they see as the offenders.

A: Well, some people can’t defend themselves.  They need others to stand up for them.

B: The point is that for potentially offensive statements or actions, short of physical assault, there is no need to defend oneself.  I make the disclaimer about physical assault because one does not always necessarily have the choice to remain free of physical injury, whether to himself or any of his property.  But I can’t think of any other kind of attempt to injure, or offend, that cannot be sustained.


A: What about emotional disorders?

B: I confess that I don’t know much about emotional disorders.  It may be that some people truly cannot help but be adversely affected emotionally when somebody makes an offensive statement in their direction.  (This is different, however, from being offended, as I clarified earlier.)  Such people, of course, should seek help from professionals.  It may be that they can get to the point of overcoming their disorder.  I also believe that such people are extraordinarily few and far between, perhaps fewer and further between than we might think.  In any case, I don’t think it’s necessary to abridge people’s freedom of speech just to appease the seemingly arbitrary whims of these few.  Rather than handcuff everybody, these people can seek protection from offense in another way.  It may help them to censor their own media intake, and to not frequent places where the risk of offensive behavior is high.

A: There are surely some behaviors that would offend just about anybody.

B: It may be that most of us are bothered by some base behaviors.  However, I insist that we don’t need to take offense at it all the same.  Being “bothered” does not necessarily mean choosing to take offense.

A: Oh, so I guess we can just feel free to make whatever rude comments come to our minds to other people?

B: This, of course, is not a logical consequence of the preceding assertion that you cannot offend another.  Just because it’s not your fault if people take offense at what you say, doesn’t mean there could not possibly be something wrong with something you say.  Is the only reason you don’t insult people all the time simply that you’re afraid you might get into some kind of trouble?  I would think you’d want to say nice things about other people anyway – it’s gotta be part of loving your neighbor, I would think.  You’re doing both yourself and the other guy a favor when you speak kind words, and peace generally reigns.  Of course we should try to speak kindly of other people, as much as we can.  What I’m saying is that there really are responsibilities on both ends of communication: both for the person initiating it to be respectful of others, and for the person receiving it to not be so touchy as to be offended by it.

  1. See this talk for both this assertion and the clarification preceding it.
  2. Attr. to Brigham Young (1801-1877) and Confucius (551-479 BC) (disputed).

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