As predominantly pro-social animals, humans are quite often conflict averse. And innumerable forms of social pressure, all the way from authoritarian patriarchy to liberal multiculturalism, encourage people to be as polite as possible as the standard default. This is why letting loose and offending people can feel so incredibly liberating at times.
Insofar as our aversions to conflict restrain us from unjustifiably harming one another, they are a good thing. But insofar as they hinder us from engaging in difficult discussions or actions that could improve our thinking or our treatment of one another, they are detrimental.
And conflict aversion probably much more often than not aids the status quo over improvement. It is inherently conservative in a deeply problematic way because it privileges just keeping things the way they are over having the inevitable conflicts that will arise with airing of grievances and values differences. “Go along to get along” is the rarely spoken commandment that we are all supposed to adhere to.
So in this context, it is often implied that you should only get upset if you really can’t help yourself. If you can find a way to rationalize or roll with the way things are then it’s incumbent on you to adjust yourself to them rather than speak up and cause a fuss. If you express frustration or offense or in any other ways outright reject others’ beliefs, values, or socially accepted behaviors, you are the one making a scene, being disagreeable, and imposing on others. And with a perverted form of stoicism you are judged to be betraying your weakness by letting things get to you.
Because apparently the true mark of strength is conformism. And apparently being offended is only appropriate when existing social norms are contravened; not when existing social norms themselves harm you. And apparently existing social norms never unjustly impose on anyone; it’s those who want to change social norms who only ever imposed on anyone. And apparently proactively looking for injustices that may be being overlooked is bad because it is “looking to take offense”; where this is construed always as “looking to introduce conflict where otherwise there wouldn’t have to be any”.
These implicit attitudes, whether owned up to or not, are what any moral, social, cultural, or political reformers are up against. And it’s an iniquitously stacked deck.
“But, Dan,” some of my critics may want to say to me right now, “I thought you would want things this way? Don’t you fetishize civility as a greater good than all others?” Let me take a moment to clarify.
I have always maintained that offense is not only a morally approvable emotion but itself one of the key emotions through which moral judgment itself happens. In other words, part of how we psychologically process and socially express the appropriate anger at what is evil is through the emotion of offense. I have just argued that we are morally obligated not to express our objections in the form of abusive, bullying, authoritarian behavior or language choices. I have always argued that we can level strong, precise, evidence-based moral charges at people’s behavior or ideas. I have just also argued that it is only fair and psychologically helpful to getting through to people to criticize behaviors first and people’s whole characters second, and to do so in a spirit of education rather than recrimination.
I also think that this a matter of being truer and fairer in how we proportion our anger and where exactly we direct it. I really do think that most moral failures are due to ignorance, poor reasoning, weakness, and, most importantly, culturally systemic prejudices and practices that go well beyond the maliciousness of any given person. Comparatively little of what is wrong in what we do is willfully malicious. The good wisdom of Stoicism is to keep these things in mind and to focus compassionately on helping erring people distance themselves from their mistakes, rather than helping to wed them to them. If you blast your anger at the person as though they are inseparable from the action you make them defensive and more likely to defend the action that they are now all the more firmly identified with. If you separate them from their mistake, you help them create the psychological distance they need to reject their mistake as something not really representative of them and disown it. So, criticizing their mistakes separate from attacking their person is usually the best first resort. Only when someone insists stubbornly on owning what is wrong in themselves is it worth it to try to shame them by saying that they have a fundamental character flaw. (I develop the themes of this paragraph at length in my post “Intent Is Not Magic, But It Still Matters”.)
“Ah, that’s right, Dan,” my critics from the other side might be saying now, “You think that in the name of civility we have to kowtow to oversensitive people and never say so much as a naughty word lest someone might take offense to it.” But this is also wrong. First of all, my problem is not with fucking “naughty words”. It is with interpersonal abusiveness. Name calling falls under that. Using other “dirty” doesn’t words necessarily. But more centrally, I have argued very clearly and extensively that no one has a moral right to take offense at just anything whatsoever. Sometimes people claim offense and we can argue to them that they are wrong to do so. We can and should respectfully challenge the rectitude of their feelings in such cases by discussing whether they are merited by, and proportioned to, the facts of the situation.
I have always constantly defended the right to criticize those beliefs, values, and other things that people identify with so strongly that they become psychologically part of their very identities themselves. I have made clear that their citing “offense” is not by itself cause to concede what you did was wrong. I have just argued for the patience, compassion, and human decency to help people critically analyze their beliefs, values, and identities, by not making them defensive with personal assaults on them for who or what they are or for their intellectual mistakes, etc. And I have argued that we should not give them good reason to claim offense as an excuse to dismiss us, right when their brains are just dying for an excuse to do so, by actually being abusive, bullying, or otherwise imposing towards them.
But I digress. If we are people who want to really get things as intellectually, ethically, socially, culturally, and legally right as we can so that all people can be empowered to flourish as much as possible then we need to be proactively critical of our ideas, values, attitudes, and behaviors. We live in societies whose thinking and whose structures have long been determined in deep ways by fundamentally imperfect processes of social evolution that have gotten so many things wrong for so long that sometimes it seems like a miracle we get anything right. We have marvelously impressive brains and yet in their starting condition they are in many ways systematically unfit to accomplish what they need to in order for us all to maximally thrive. They require an immense amount of education and socialization. They require that we learn from and incorporate the wisdom of literally millennia of accumulated experience by the species and, even harder, that they unlearn whole patterns of deeply ingrained, culturally conditioned thinking and behaving that are either outdated or were always wrong.
As a result of this anyone who is a critical thinker will find a lot to criticize in what everyone around them thinks and does. And this includes being critical of countless dominant social values, attitudes, behaviors, and norms that require anything from a little more fine tuning to wholesale reassessment. And that means actively looking for things that are wrong. And things that are wrong are things it is appropriate to have negative, “offended”, feelings about. Or, at least to speak up about wherever it might be productive, rather than to just go along to get along and let things go on in their unproductive, counter-productive, or unjustly productive way.
Of course often those who benefit from the status quo will be inclined more than anyone to balk at the prospect of changing things. They have a gut level realization that changing what is for them advantageous means risking losing advantages. It is in their shortsighted interests inherently to make being offended by anything that does not contravene existing norms into a sign of weakness. For as long as those disadvantaged by the status quo internalize that norm, they shame themselves into not standing up for themselves. And for as long as not-being-offended and seeing-nothing-wrong are highly rewarded virtues, people not harmed by various injustices quite often see no reason to go look for them and cause trouble. This perpetuates generalized passivity in favor of the status quo.
And, finally, no one expresses greater ease with conflict than the beneficiaries of the status quo when they are offended and pushing back against those who challenge it. Why? Probably because when one is reacting in defense of the existing social norms that one unquestioningly believes in, one feels the full sanction of morality and society to vent their defensive hostility. This does not even feel to them like something supposedly weak and reactive like “taking offense”.
But it is.
And, often, it is so very unjustly.
None of this is a recommendation that we counterproductively alienate or demonize everyone around us all day long over every possible imperfection we get attuned to and make life even more miserable for others and ourselves. Nor is it a recommendation that we read every one’s words and deeds in the least charitable light, with constant confirmation bias in favor of seeing injustice everywhere. And neither is it even to say that social norms are monolithically always on the side of one particular group over another. Some of the dominant norms contradict each other.
But it is to say that there is nothing wrong with critically looking for flaws, even where one could train oneself to simply never see them and simply get by. In fact, it’s necessary this be done as a constant project. It is necessary we seek out the injustices if we are to see them and no one should be blamed for refusing to be blind to all but the most unavoidably painful. How to be most productive about patiently and efficiently working with people and institutions in their imperfections and without having acrimonious relationships is the hard question of where one goes from there. Obviously I’m not in favor of slash and burn or nuclear strategies for creating change. But count me squarely against those who want to shut down the proactive pursuit of problems to fix with gaslighting charges of emotional weakness and other character flaws.
To give credit where it’s due, this post is based in part on reflections inspired by Miri Mogilevsky’s must-read post, Shit People Say To People Who Care About Shit.
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