Friday, February 21, 2014

I Don't Mean to Offend, but...

What triggers our reactions to what we perceive as offensive words or behavior? To what degree are those reactions borne of an intuitive sense of right and wrong, as opposed to social conditioning?

Growing up in a Christian home, a lot of things about the world offended me as I got older and developed a sharper view of the sin in man's heart (and in my own heart). I still consider myself a Christian, but I find myself being less easily offended these days. Part of that is because it takes up too much energy to get offended at every little thing.

I mean, I still don't like hearing someone take God's name in vain. And there are certain social issues on which I have strong feelings, and it can upset me when someone mocks or dismisses my beliefs. But I get over it.

Perhaps my skin has thickened from being a journalist all these years, or maybe I've become apathetic (certainly cynical), but what bothers a lot of people doesn't bother me all that much. Perhaps it should, but it doesn't. Given the influence of my childhood and adulthood experiences, it makes me think that social conditioning does indeed play a large role in what we find offensive.

But I also believe there is an intuitive aspect to it. You see it in very small children, who aren't old enough to understand what you tell them about right and wrong but can sense when someone has been wronged (especially if it's them). The law has been written on our hearts, so to speak, even if we can't always make out exactly what it says.

And that's where the social conditioning can come in. Those who are older and in authority take a child's pliable moral sense and shape it into something more solid, whether for good or bad. Once that value system is established – and everyone has a value system – then we can more easily identify what we do or don't find offensive.

A certain amount of self-righteousness is inherent in any value system, and thus a proclivity for seeking out things that offend us. When something offends you, it's because your sense of right and wrong has been pricked, and taking a moral stand for something makes you feel morally superior to whatever or whoever has offended you. We all like being in the right, and most of us like letting others know that we're in the right and, if they disagree with us, they are clearly in the wrong. So really, being offended is something we want.

This psychological phenomenon, by the way, is not unique to any particular group of people. Christians, Muslims, atheists, Republicans, Democrats, communists, pacifists, warmongers – all possess some sort of moral sense, even if it's twisted. All are offended by those who oppose them.

Of course, some people are more easily offended than others. Given how my attitude in this regard has changed over the years, does being less easily offended equal a crumbling value system? Or more accurately, perhaps, does it mean my value system has turned inward? (Even the most selfish person has values, it's just that most of those values are concerned acutely with the self.) Is it a sign of maturity?

As I ponder this, one thought strikes me: Over the years, how I handle personal insults has changed dramatically. Of all the things that might offend me, a personal insult isn't one of them. Again, I point to my experience as a sports journalist, a job in which insults come with the territory. Sports fans can be a pretty easily offended bunch, and so they lash out at the easiest targets – the messengers.

It's at the point now that someone hurling insults my way actually provides me with a few laughs. Witness this recent Twitter exchange, precipitated by my calling a Mississippi State player a bust after two seasons:

That's tame stuff. I once had a reader – an atheist who took exception to a column I had written for a Christian website – send me an email in which he prayed that Satan would give my children cancer. It doesn't get more offensive than that, but I ultimately laughed it off because of how ridiculous it was.

Laughter is a great way to deal with those who would offend you. It strips such a person's words and actions of their power.

Of course, choosing not to be offended leads us into another moral thorn bush, one in which I often find myself entangled: We can think ourselves too morally advanced to let those offensive heathens bring us down. There's that damn self-righteousness again.


Rachel Nagel said...

I am offended by the use of your word "damn" after making it obvious that you are a Christian! Lol. Actually, nope, not even a little bit, but as your sister, it is my job to torment & mess w/ you, even in adulthood :) Actually, I really enjoyed the post and found it to be thought-provoking. Plus, you're not the only one who's less offended these days. In fact, the things people are offended about irritate me more than anything. Especially since I started studying the Iraqi Arabic language & culture. Do you have any idea how many people have an ignorant concept of Muslims?? Seriously, I had someone de-friend & say they couldn't be publicly associated w/ someone who said that the news network Al-Jazeera wasn't a terrorist network. Which they aren't. They're an Arabic news agency w/ no more bias than Fox or CNN, & possibly less. I get pretty offended over people treating Muslims like terrorist when they don't treat Christians like they're all members of Westboro. Well, I get offended over people who stereotype, in general, probably b/c I've been stereotyped as a female in the military in so many negative ways it's not even funny. However, if I've been deployed to Iraq *twice* and logged over 25,000 miles outside-the-wire in an armored tractor-trailer dodging IEDs, been shot at, sat in the dark w/ a remote-det 1.55 round IED that's caused your convoy to be split in half and then had to get out of your truck w/ a flashlight, lit up like a damn Christmas tree, knowing there's a trigger-man out in the dark somewhere, in order to spot back 7 trucks 400 meters back b/c the convoy is to close, live-round in the chamber, praying I don't f'ing die in this God-forsaken place...if I don't stereotype them after all that b/c I realize the people trying to kill me & my comrades aren't representative of the Muslim faith, why do others? Soap-box over, but I like the blog. Love ya!

Brad Locke said...