Monday, May 24, 2010

How to be offended

Whether it's the Chaser making fun of kids with Cancer, the Thai Royal Family being criticised on CNN or Der Groot Newspaper / South Park portraying the prophet Mohammed or somebody suggesting that Tech Stocks in 1999/Housing right now is maybe not as great an investment you believe sooner or later you are going to offend somebody. Either unwittingly or deliberately.

Whilst it is generally good advice to avoid offending people, I have to say that causing offense is one of the most important aspects of freedom. I don't know the exact meaning of the word offense, but I suspect it ranges from moral outrage to hurt feelings.

Parliamentary priveledge for example illustrates the importance of a healthy respect for the right to offend, it allowed the English house of commons and lords to actually criticise the monarchy and be immune from the king's wrath. Freedom of Speech too is something that allows people to speak out against the ruling elite.

Furthermore it's not as simple as a clear cut world of right and wrong, which would make parliamentary priveledge and freedom of speech essentially vacuous. You cannot say 'you can say anything you like... except about kids with cancer.' doesn't work, just like the kid with brittle bones in primary school was always the biggest prick because you couldn't hit him back.

People believe different things, people come into conflict, conflict can be constructive and I believe firmly that people are entitled to their beliefs.

Those who cause offense usually pay the price, in lowered esteem or not getting picked at the speed dating or losing the prospective job, whatever. That's fair enough. (In so far as it is fair to discriminate between people because you don't like them - perhaps okay at speed dating but may be a no no in a job interview).

Those who are offended though, that's the tricky part. Here's what you need to know about being offended: How you feel is your fault.

How you feel is your fault.

How YOU feel is YOUR fault.

You get to choose how you react, people with 'emotional maturity' or rather 'self control' generally can exercise more control than people for which the concept of moderating our own behaviour is new probably don't realise all the choices they have available to them.

I take the 'how you feel is your fault' from Horstman's laws. He's a management consultant that has been known to tell his 'umbrella story'. That is three guys get into a lift and head for the top floor. The guy in front in the elevator has an umbrella tucked under his arm. Unbeknownst to him his umbrella's point is jabbing into Horstman behind him. Horstman at first rolls his eyes, but with each successive jab he gets angrier and angrier. Fortunately the guy with the umbrella gets off on an earlier floor. Horstman turns to his friend and says 'can you believe that guy, boy was he ticking me off.' and his friend says 'no, all that guy did was poke you with an umbrella, you got ticked off all by yourself.'

Profound, and I hope now you've heard the story second hand you don't soon forget it. Most people I feel would agree that if boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy and girl get along for several years, girl dumps boy, boy gets upset, boy murders ex-girlfriend then the boy is entirely responsible for his own actions and getting murdered was not the product of the girls decision to break up with somebody she didn't love anymore. I certainly hope you agree.

This is commonly called an overreaction, other examples are when you get called by a telemarketer and blow your stack at some poor kid or foreigner who is just trying to make a living from the best opprtunity available. Or perhaps when you are the last Masterchef contestant chosen for a team challenge. It even includes when a call center employee misinterprets some respondent blowing their stack as personal criticism and gives them some back.

All these people can choose how they react, or they are machines with hardwired routines they follow. People aren't machines, behaviour is a choice, with the rare exception of mental illness. If you are picked last for a team you can either A) acknowledge that somebody had to be picked last. or B) take it personally and say 'stuff yous all'.

If your girlfriend dumps you, you can A) have a cry and move on with your life. or B) fly into a rage and call your girlfriend a slut, bitch, whore whatever. or C) fly into a rage and beat your girlfriend. or D) kill your girlfriend.

ANd just in order to clarify, there are right and wrong answers to the questions of how to react. (A in the above examples).

There are right and wrong answers to how to react even when somebody offends your deepest held beliefs.

I'm an athiest and honestly I don't respect religious beliefs. I have a right not respect religious beliefs. I have a right not to respect moral beliefs. I do respect vegans, but I don't want to be one. People eat cheese all over the place, but you never see Vegans taking to the street and burning people alive over cheese consumption. Even though to a vegan (conscientious vegans, not health vegans), the cheese industry means the ongoing rape of millions of animals daily.

Furthermore, I don't think many people appreciate how offensive religious practices are to an athiest. I can't speak on behalf of all athiests of course, but I can quote one that sums up my own personal feelings:

There is in fact no worldview more reprehinsible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, loves me, and will reward me after my death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of truth until the end of the world; everyone who disarees with me will spend eternity in hell... An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaniginable in scientific discourse-and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.

Now Sam Harris is writing about the 'Christian Nation' of the USA, and it is not my intention to have a dig at 'believers' here. The quote simply points out a simple fact, that as an athiest there are a lot of people walking around that are okay with the entity they love most in the world torturing me for all eternity. I'm not particularly scared of this outcome, because I don't believe it exists, but when I think about it (if I can be bothered) it IS offensive that people think this God is a great guy despite his sociopathic narcissism. I'm also frankly offended that there's people in the world who don't think eternal damnation is sufficient and that I should be killed for my herecy now in a brutal and violent way.

Fact are facts, and the fact is, I find this belief held by people offensive, just as surely as they hold my deeply held belief that their is no god and their life has no intrinsic purpose aside from the context they choose to give it, offensive.

But many, many of us whether you believe in God or not can coexist side by side, simply because we choose how to react. I'm never going to suggest that religious believers be purged from the earth, or tortured or punished in some way. I could, but I don't want to. I see it as counterproductive, it also seems most people of faith also see it this way. People who react violently to blaspheme are fortunately rare or fortunately isolated in the global community.

To me, nationalism is a more pressing concern, and above that those economic beliefs that have almost religious status - like the Neo-classical reverence for the free market which has now destroyed more American lives than Islamic fundamentalism ever did.

My intellectual forebears have put up with centuries of shit, from being tortured and killed by the Spanish Inquisition, to being incarcerated, to choosing suicide over chemical castration, to being assasinated in a theatre for opposing slavery.

I'm for freedom, and being offended is part of being free and living in a free society. There's no particular virtue in being offensive, but people have a right to be offensive. You have an obligation to handle your offense with dignity and self control no matter how sensitive or emotionally invested you are.

People are not obliged to self-censor so as to create a cotton wool world. As Thomas Jefferson said:

I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason.
- Letter to Nicolas Gouin Dufief, Philadelphia bookseller (1814) who had been prosecuted for selling the book Sur la Création du Monde, un Systême d'Organisation Primitive by M. de Becourt, which Jefferson himself had purchased.

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