It’s 2017, and the internet has become the place we all go to get offended by stuff.
Odds are, based on that first sentence, you’ve already steeled yourself for whatever’s coming. The word offended is a strangely loaded one, almost offensive unto itself, and its usage frequently implies that either a long sermon or a barrage of mockery is coming next. Offense is worn as a badge of pride by a few, used as a pejorative by a few more, and generally treated as cause for alarm, one way or another.
I don’t choose to be offended by the things that offend me, but I do choose my response to that particular emotion.(At this point, some of you are saying “Pssshhhaw! I’m not offended by anything, and I don’t care when other people are!”—which is just another way of saying that you’re offended by my insinuation you would be offended by anything.)
What we ought to be offended by is still a matter of dispute, but that we’re all offended is evidenced by a quick scroll through Tumblr or Twitter. On Tumblr, you’ll find countless pockets of people pejoratively referred to as “SJWs” (that is, Social Justice Warriors) who see nothing but intersectional struggle in every human interaction and get mad whenever anyone unlucky enough to be white/straight/male/Christian/heterosexual/cisgendered/whatever’s-the-opposite-of-otherkin (samekin?) does or says anything.
Over on Twitter, you’ll find nests of “GamerGaters,” “Rabid Puppies,” alt-righters, and Trump-loving eggs, all willing to lay into you for acknowledging that non–white males might have things a bit harder than others or for daring to question whether our Dear Leader is the greatest president of all time.
And those who have tired of being simply outraged all the time have taken to being outraged that people are outraged, enjoying the taste of “white male tears” and telling “snowflakes” to find their “safe spaces.” (That this essentially amounts to being offended that people get offended doesn’t really seem to bother them.)
I recently had a low-key confrontation with an acquaintance who posted a meme shaming the people who voted to take down the Confederate monuments in New Orleans, suggesting they were too easily “offended.” When I pointed out to her that she had, not five minutes before, posted a tirade about how offended she was by anti-Trump memes, she responded, “I’m not ‘offended’! I’m angry, and hurt, and scared!”—as if being “angry and hurt and scared” was self-evidently a moral high ground, but being “offended” was obviously just a waste of everyone’s time.
Emotions are, of course, slippery things, but ye olde Thesaurus.com lists both angry and hurt as synonyms for offended—meaning that at least some people (the ones who make it their business to track the definitions of words) see at least a bit of overlap there. In other words, “offense”—at the risk of stating the obvious—is nothing more than an emotion, no different from anger or disgust, and at the risk of stating the even-more-obvious, no one is consciously choosing which emotions he or she feels. Given this, isn’t it strange that we attach so much moral baggage to offense? Is experiencing an emotion really a moral accomplishment or a moral failure?
Don’t let me act like I’m on any sort of moral high ground here. Certainly, I have plenty of things that offend me, and I’ve spent far more time enjoying the offense of others than anyone seeking to follow Jesus probably should. There have been long periods in my life when I greatly enjoyed tweeting something social-justicey with the hashtag #GamerGate, simply to watch heads explode, or reading up on all the silly nonsense SJWs were saying via oft-deleted Facebook pages like “Sh*t Tumblr Says.” Offending someone is fun, in a sinful sort of way: it makes you feel like you have power over them. And, of course, being offended can be fun in its own way as well—who doesn’t enjoy venting their outrage?
Unfortunately, “fun” and “helpful or productive” are rarely synonymous—especially when this sort of thing spills over into the real world. Internet outrage all seemed like good fun until the results of the 2016 election came in, and I heard multiple people saying, “I didn’t like Trump at all, but I voted for him because he p*ssed off all the right people.” Regardless of what you think of Trump, I think we can all agree that “This will make the people I don’t like mad” is a terrible basis for choosing a leader or crafting public policy. And at the moment, we seem to be quickly approaching a world where every choice is governed by whom we want to annoy. This is a terrible trajectory, so I’d like to try to reframe the “I’m offended” conversation a bit, if I could.
In the first place, since offense is nothing more than an emotion, it’s likely everyone regularly experiences it—or at least something analogous to it. I say “something analogous” because there’s at least some psychological and sociological evidence that emotions themselves are not strictly real, concrete things, but rather cultural constructs based on the individual’s own interpretation of his or her own inner state. In other words, it makes sense that subcultures that value offense (i.e., left-leaning ones) would experience the emotion more often than cultures that tend to denigrate it (i.e., the Right)—though, in all likelihood, they both share an internal state that could be rightly described as offense. In other words, if you’re the sort of person who mocks people for getting “offended,” you probably actually get offended just as often as others do, just about different things—and you probably prefer to call it something else, like “angry” or “p*ssed off.”
The second thing we can say about offense is that an emotion—such as offense—is essentially involuntary, and therefore neither a moral failing nor a moral accomplishment. If we have only limited (and unconscious) say in which emotions we experience, then we can’t take credit for any of them. I don’t choose to be offended by the things that offend me (though I may choose to describe that offense as “anger” or “fear” rather than as offense), but I do choose my response to that particular emotion.
So if emotions are simultaneously constructed and involuntary, what can we do with them? The Apostle Paul puts this beautifully and succinctly in his epistle to the Ephesians: “Be angry and do not sin.” I wouldn’t be taking too much license to insert the word “offended” where “angry” is, since (as we’ve established) anger and offense are closely related, if not essentially identical, emotions. Paul doesn’t condemn the emotions of the Ephesian Christians, but he does speak directly to how they deal with those emotions. To be offended is not wrong; to use that offense as an excuse to harm another person physically, emotionally, or otherwise is. (No, you’re not allowed to bodyslam reporters, no matter how offensive you find their conduct. No, you’re not allowed to riot, no matter how much of an idiot Milo Yiannopoulos is.)
Rather than framing our offense as a moral stance or an end in itself, we need to learn to frame it as what all emotions are: an opportunity. First, an opportunity to examine the emotion and determine how legitimate it is (not all the things that offend us are truly worth getting offended over, after all), and second, an opportunity to act productively on it, if it is in fact a legitimate one. If you’re offended by poverty or injustice, do something about it. If you’re offended by division, give people something to unite around. If you’re offended that the media says mean things about the President, maybe find something better to spend your energy on.
Admittedly, this sort of approach is less entertaining than simply yelling at people on the internet—but it’s likely to accomplish more, and likely to be far better for your soul.