Where is offense?

JimBioPicLike most of us I have been following the tempest succeeding the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, the wave of anti-terrorist rhetoric, the rendering of Mohammed as a kind of ‘we’ll-show-you’ counter-punch, the counter-counter punch of Muslims being offended by the rendering, and on it goes. Everyone seems offended by something.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and trying to observe the phenomena that are being referred to in ordinary conversation — when we are speaking and listening. My point of view, is that if we cannot observe something then whatever we’re talking about isn’t actionable. For example, when we generalize about someone or speak about their ‘personality’ we may have a sense of what we’re talking about, but in all likelihood different people will have different views and none of them can be verified independent of the speakers, and in most cases rarely leads to action or any real change. This can in turn become part of our conventional wisdom, such as ‘people’s personalities and human nature don’t change in fundamental ways’, which then for all practical purposes become ‘facts’. Put this kind of thinking into a political or religious context, and it is a set up for a never ending and irresolvable condition, like a ‘family-feud’ that takes on a life of its own. It becomes the source of institutionalized suffering and violence.

I heard a great podcast of an interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ and Maajid Nawaz, a very articulate and thoughtful author who became an Islamist at the age of 16 and was able to extricate himself 10 years later. (click here to listen) He tells a compelling story of the arguments used to recruit youth into Jihad and the difficulties faced once one is on the inside of Islamist organizations, which like other cults become closed and self-referential systems. On the question of how to think about this issue of offense to Islam by rendering what Muslim’s consider to be blasphemous, he offers a very simple but essential distinction.

Specifically, he suggests that Muslims (or anyone) who are offended by any form of expression are entitled to being offended. But they do not have a right, if the offense is some form of legal self-expression in a free and democratic society, to punish or promote violence against the offenders. In a closed Muslim community members may have and choose to enforce their own rules, but to apply those rules to those not belonging to their community is a form of theological or ideological fascism, and cannot co-exist in a free society. Nawaz is the author of the memoir Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism.

The question I use to test if something can be observed is, ‘where is it’? Show me. If the word is trust, what I might see is that trust can be observed as specific judgments. I can’t observe a feeling or an emotion, although I can observe my thinking and my behavior that I label as an emotion or feeling.

I am suggesting that any form of ‘being offended’ is similar to feeling someone is ‘nagging’. It is a phenomenon that only occurs (and can be observed) in our listening and the meaning we give to what is being said. It is entirely a function of our interpretation, our values and our commitments and it is never caused by something outside ourselves. I may consider you to be a jerk, that what you are saying to be inappropriate, and even judge a statement to ‘offensive’. But to then say that the statement you are making OFFENDS ME, is to react to the statement, and abdicate any responsibility for how I relate to and listen to the statement. My view is that your statement is causing something that it is not, and cannot, be the cause of. Said differently, we become prisoners of our own belief system, and then ‘react’ to anything that challenges or calls our beliefs into question.

Finally when we are responsible for our feelings, particularly our negative feelings like being offended, then we can express ourselves in ways that can open dialogue, allow for education and at some moment bring us closer together. Rarely does someone try to intentionally offend someone else. Yet, people get offended all the time. As we learn to listen more deeply, acknowledge our differences and communicate our intentions, we may also learn that whether we like it or not, we are always co-creating our reality. The opportunity is there to co-create a world that works for all of us, and when we do, we may discover that being offended is a choice.

OFFENSE is always a function of the interpretation (listening) of those who are offended. It is legitimate to declare that “I am feeling offended”, it is not legitimate or accurate to say “you (or the statement) are the cause of my feelings.


2 thoughts on “Where is offense?”

  1. This well thought-out piece reminded me of a comment I think I heard Fran Leibowitz make on Letterman one night, toi the effect of: being offended is a natural consequence of leaving the house. It’s true that once we venture out from our warm & protective coverlet, we’re going to encounter all manner of things we don’t agree with, or that push us in a direction we may not want to go, or worse: “offend” us. It’s equally true that our growth as evolved adults depends not on what “happens” to us, but how we react to it. Taking offense makes us captive to the offender, to say nothing of the claim of emotion on our otherwise rational thoughts.

  2. Ah, rules and policies. I disepse them, but these are rules to save our ass and wellbeing. I’m happy I got caught in a minor way and have steered my life elsewhere. Great stuff.

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