I have noticed that the phrase, “you have offended me,” now is often treated as an unassailable trump card. Once this phrase is used, the person who has wielded it seems to have won. The offender has nothing much he can say except ask exactly how he offended or to seek to apologize for his affront, maybe do a little grovelling. In truth, this accusation often kills a discussion or seeks to win points by attacking a person’s character. If we can establish the other person as evil, well, what more is needed than that?
Why is this offense card so powerful in our society? Harry Frankfurt in his book On Inequality suggests that when people feel denied respect in some way, and respond emotionally, it is because they fear, “the unbearably deep suffering and dread that may be caused when people are treated unjustly.” Further, he suggests they feel that “their personal reality is threatened by a denial of the importance that is required by respect.” Our society, too, is colored by the fear of injustices that come from our past such as racism , slavery, homophobia, oppression of women, and so on. It is important to recognize many injustices have happened in the past and still do today, so we do not repeat them. This history colors the thoughts of many people, leading them to view the world in terms of oppressors and oppressed, victors and victims.
Further, many people wrap their sense of identity firmly around a variety of ideas, emotions, and desires. Perhaps that is a racial, cultural, sexual, ideological, or religious identity. Many also have past traumas from unbearably evil experiences. And so often we are taught that if we just pursue being ourselves in a way that flows genuinely from our emotions, then we will be living authentic lives. Then something horrible happens; all this gets tripped up when others present ideas, arguments, or facts that contradict our sense of ourselves; it looks like the other person is trampling on our very existence.
I’m honestly often at a loss about how to convey the empathy that many people need in this cold, cruel world while at the same time having a reasonable discussion about important issues, especially ones that tend to push our cultural buttons. I don’t want anyone to feel the “unbearably deep suffering and dread that may be caused when someone is treated unjustly.” We generally ought to respect other people even when we disagree. It is also true that, whoever we are, we need to beware of playing the victim card. Once we are victims, we are essentially giving other people great authority to determine our destinies. Also, as the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, small traumas are good for the traumatized, so people should not be sheltered from offensive or challenging ideas.
Instead of identifying as a victim and playing up how we feel offended, we should arm ourselves with information. This information should address both sides of the argument. If your position is essentially an emotional position with a few tidbits here and there thrown in from personal experiences and studies, maybe the reason you feel so offended and fragile is that you don’t know enough. Thus alternative arguments and facts appear to obliterate your entire position. And this makes you feel like your entire identity is being threatened. But as it is written, the truth will set you free. Press into the truth and you will avoid the sense that your personal reality is always being threatened.