Why are we so easily offended?

Citylife Chiang Mai’s editor mulls over our offence taking and offence giving culture

By | Fri 22 Jan 2021

It seems that it is getting easier and easier these days to give and take offence; blame it on the instant gratification culture of new media, the growing heterogeneous nature of cultures and societies as they shift and reshapes…or people just being arseholes, but outrage appears to be de rigueur, even celebrated.

I have apologised to three people this week whom I offended over the past year. Long overdue, these apologies were met with grace and forgiveness, and for that I am grateful. This humbling experience has made me mull over my own short fuse in taking offence at what these people had said to me, which in turn lead me to offend them. Looking back, none of them were being offensive, I merely chose to take offence – what a waste of time and friendships.

I have been fortunate enough to have flourished in great education and been stifled by bad. While each school was at polar opposites in terms of facilities, teachers and curriculum, the real difference was that one opened up the mind, encouraging it to push boundaries and explore unknowns while the other corralled and tempered.

The most memorable class I ever attended was when I was 16 and studying the Second World War in a classroom of 16 students from 13 nationalities, including German, Japanese, American, British, Spanish, Chinese and Indian. Over the Christmas holidays we were tasked with interviewing our relatives, mostly grandparents, returning to school the next term to share our stories. What ensued was a dynamic classroom which we all walked in each day with great anticipation; a classroom which explored and eventually painted a global portrait of the war from so many angles, and biases, we were forever changed by the experience. Empathy and understanding were the two things I recall most about that time, not dates and deaths. Not one of us, on discovering that our grandfathers likely bombed or shot one another a mere two generations ago, felt offence or anger at what we had learned, instead it reshaped our worldview and allowed us to see the war from different perspectives…surely a sign of great success for any history teacher. (Thank you Mrs. Harwood and Mrs. Maxwell!)

It’s a paradox how our world feels both more expansive and compressed at the same time. As we have more access to information and differing viewpoints, we are also easily able to find the likeminded and sympathetic to reaffirm our own beliefs, however wrong. But as we share our every thought with a mere click-clack of a keyboard and meet people from multiple walks of life, conflict is bound to follow. After all we are all products of our cultures, societies and upbringing, and our beliefs and moral scales all differ through life experiences and social constructs. One natural result of such conflict, unfortunately, is in the increase in the giving and taking of offence.

But frankly, whether we live in a small village with the same 200 people our entire lives or are active citizens of the world, we are all capable of giving and taking offence. I find myself offended on a daily basis: when someone puts ice in my beer or salt in my orange juice my internal hackles rise; when I see plastic-wrapped bananas at 7Eleven or a plastic straw sticking out of a coke can, I feel aggrieved; when I read of yet another corrupt policeman or I hear another politician wax empty promise, I feel the bubbling of indignation; when I see a drunk expat slapping a young server on her bottom or a rich housewife hurling insults at her maid, I find myself outraged. On a daily basis, to some degree, I am offended.

I also offend. Unintentionally of course, but my words and actions have been known to cause offence. Whether it’s to my poor mother who has never reconciled herself with having failed to raise a proper Thai lady; to my grumpy neighbour, whose arbour I sloppily park on; to my friends whose world views don’t align with my own or to you, dear readers, whose comments sometimes raise my temper and lead me to react with an immature or unprofessional quip. And then of course there are the thousands of words I have spewed out from Citylife’s many channels over the past two decades, many of which I am sure have elicited more than a raised eyebrow.

What I must constantly remind myself of when I find myself bent out of shape, is that offence is personal and idiosyncratic. What offends me doesn’t necessarily offend another. Any feelings I have through perceived transgression is frankly of absolutely no concern to anyone else but me. Because I have chosen to take it, it is mine, and no one else’s. It’s called a narcissistic injury, I read somewhere.

After all, slights, pet peeves, outrages and offence are things even the most sophisticated legal systems in the world aren’t able to regulate or legislate. The sliding scale of offence is so subjective; many legal systems have thrown off the burden of judgment to those set by ‘community standards’ – whatever the hell that means. I have lived amongst multiple communities and sub-cultures around the world, none of which would agree on most standards within the realm of law, let alone the many shades of grey unseen by Lady Justice’s blind eyes. The other problem with regulating offence is that this can inadvertently increase the number of offensive incidents simply by allowing for and even creating an environment whereby offence-taking sensibilities can grow. There are people out there who are actually professional at taking offence; not only taking, but acting on and profiting from, it. And like most things in life, they range from those who chose to channel their feelings into activism for the greater good to those who conduct witch-hunts, using their outrage as a tool to suppress and condemn. Social media is littered with these types of people; they seem to spend their lives scouring texts for subtexts, whether intended or not. Each perceived slight ending up being used as a tool by the intolerant.

It is these people who shout “J’accuse!” at every mockery and who demand retribution following every slight, be they uber-liberal activists or religious fundamentalists, who do us all a disservice. Because it is they who are the real culprits here. It is their manipulation of someone else’s intention which is leading to one of my greatest concerns as a writer, and that is self-censorship. We all edit ourselves in everyday life, controlling what we say and how we behave, out of concern for others and the understanding of social boundaries. But the more we do so because we are afraid to speak up, the harder it will be for us to have reasoned debate, essential to any society’s development and growth.

What was offensive a century ago wasn’t offensive fifty years ago. What was offensive ten years ago, is no longer offensive today. One offence after another has been discarded through the ages because of enlightenment, experience and education. While there will always be those who set themselves up as guardians of whatever beliefs, traditions or cultures they hold dear, kicking and screaming against any perceived insult, the tide of progress will – one hopes – eventually prevail. With greater understanding of the complexities of the world we live in comes greater empathy and compassion. Life is so interesting not because we know what we know, but because we grow as we know more.

As a society we should be aware of and learn to avoid indulging in narcissistic injury. It is important to listen, to learn and to expand one’s mind and thought. While hurtful, a comment or action may not necessarily be malicious in intent.

We should all have been so fortunate to have studied in Mrs. Harwood and Mrs. Maxwell’s classrooms.

Ed: I was talking about this very subject with some friends last night and recalled that I had written an editorial about this. So I searched this website and the above editorial has been updated from my May 2018 editorial. The reason I am only telling you now is because I hope that you too, as I did, find it fascinating that this could have been written today.