I want to share a point of view with you that you’ve likely never heard. My last piece about racism was a little scary to share, but well-received, so I thought I’d continue to be bold.
I wrote the following for my upcoming course on Paradigmatic Analysis. If unpacking concepts like this is interesting to you, you might enjoy the course. It begins this Thursday on July 2 at 11:15 am PT.
Being “offended” is a great example of one of the many things we humans operate with as if we understand it. It’s particularly relevant in today’s society where more than ever we’re encouraged to watch what we say.
The dictionary tells us that an offense is an upset or resentment brought about by a perceived insult or disrespect to someone’s values.
But how does that work, exactly? What has to happen for someone to be offended? If someone randomly walks up to you on the street and insists that the moon was made of cheese, you wouldn’t be offended.
Nor would you be upset if they asserted that the sky was green and grass was blue. But if they asserted negative things about your spiritual or political beliefs, or beliefs you have about yourself, then you might be offended.
What’s the difference?
You might say that the offensive subjects are more personal. But suppose you have long, brown hair and the random person starting ranting about your short, blonde hair. You wouldn’t be offended by this personal attack, you’d think the person was delusional because you were secure in the truth.
For offense to happen, it must trigger the insecurity and uncertainty in the offendee. In other words, people get upset when what they really need to be true, but actually aren’t sure about, is threatened.
You know the sky is blue. You know the grass is green. You don’t have any uncertainty about it, nor are those facts functioning as any kind of identity for you.
But your ideas about who you are, what life is, and how it ought to be lived include many assumptions and beliefs that we build an identity around. Because none of us can have absolute truth about such things, it creates an insecurity gap. We want to believe that what we believe is true, but we also know deep down that we’re not sure.
This, in short, is why more people have been killed in the name of God than anything else. We only aggressively fight for what we believe (and are afraid isn’t true), not for what we know to be true. Concepts around God broadly include the three big existential questions of who you are, what life is, and how it ought to be lived. Despite the fact that many people claim they have absolute truth in these areas, it’s easy to demonstrate that they don’t, because inevitably there are untested beliefs in the premises.
Absolute conviction about something doesn’t mean absolute truth. Ironically, it signals uncertainty fear. That doesn’t mean absolute conviction about something means you’re wrong, it just means that somewhere in you you’re afraid it isn’t right, therefore vulnerable to offense because you think the idea is part of who you are.
People even say things like, “This is what I believe and that is who I am” as if it’s some kind of strength. But that person probably existed before they had that belief, and if they dropped it, they’d likely find they’d continue to exist. It’s observably not essential to who they are. What they’re really saying is, “This is what I believe, and I’ve built an identity around it such that I am afraid of who I’d be without it, so back off!”
When this is the case, and a belief is threatened, that false identity is compelled to fight back because it feels like a matter of survival. That’s what being offended is. It is a false identity revealing its insecurities and delusionally fighting for survival.
This is not to say that it’s okay for anyone to say whatever they want. There is value to appropriateness, respect, and harmony. There’s an apt quotation that sums this up, “Try hard not to offend. Try harder not to be offended.”
If you’re going to risk offending someone, you want to have a good reason for it. I challenge people’s values for a living, so I usually do, but I admit sometimes I do it by mistake and it doesn’t go well.
But the more important part of the quote is the second half. “Try harder to not be offended.” How do you embody this? If you do feel offended, you use the trigger to investigate what you’re afraid isn’t true. It may be that 99% of you is very sure about your truth, but if you’re offended, there must be 1% that isn’t. That part is worth looking for, because it’s a part of you still contracted in fear.
In our society, it’s often the case that the motivation for change comes from outrage. Outrage is when offense, injustice, and rage come together. This is, of course, understandable. Unfortunately, though, because outrage is a defensive position, it tends to elicit defensiveness on the other side; in other words, it doesn’t promote listening.
You can see this anywhere you look in society at a contentious issue. It’s so pervasive that it’s easy to accept it as “the way it is,” but it doesn’t have to be. You might think I’m not advocating for change, but this would be a misunderstanding. I’m actually advocating for greater and faster change. Change fueled by outrage elicits resistance and slows the process. It makes things less bad, not good, and that’s what progress looks like in our world. That’s not my preference.
One of the first things you learn in martial arts is that strong emotional reactions not only don’t help, but make you weak and slow. My sword teacher once said, “When you cut, you don’t cut strong, and you definitely don’t cut weak. You cut to kill.” In other words, there’s no need to add anything to the movement. You do what’s required and nothing else.
Unfortunately, most of us are so used to utilizing emotion as a fuel source, we don’t know how to operate without it. That’s an unknown to investigate. I see this often with people who use the anxiety of being up against a deadline to get something done. It works, but at a great cost. It’s exhausting, unsustainable, and slow.
To change one’s motivation from a strong emotion to a deeper source can be difficult, but it is well worth doing. What is that deeper motivation? How do you make that change? That’s a long story, but if you meditate the right way, you eventually find out.
Thanks for reading. If this inquiry into the nature of offense was interesting to you, and you’re not easily offended, I invite you to join the upcoming course.