The “I’m Offended” Game

The “I’m Offended” Game July 2, 2012

My fellow Patheos blogger and Catholic pontificator extraordinaire Elizabeth Scalia writes a lovely post on the tactics of offense.  Speaking of the response to the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, she writes:

Amid all the predictability, though, nothing bores me more than the phrase “that offends me,” uttered by a person who decides to define himself (or herself) according to some aspect of that self — as a fat person, a thin person, a vegetarian person, a meat-loving person, a Christian person, an atheist — and then presumes to “take offense” at things, on behalf of all the people in the world who share some form of that defining characteristic.

A too-quick choice to be offended by something (and it is a choice) tells me a couple of things about a person: first, that he feels so uncertain of who he is that he must declare and define himself as “thus” or “such” in order to establish a reference marker — a stake that is meant as much for himself as for the rest of us…Second: a death-grip on an identifier, used in conjunction with feather-ruffled offense-taking, tells me that this person is a passive aggressive — someone so weak that he needs to resort to the tyranny of “shut up” because he cannot trust his ideas or arguments to hold up under debate. Rather than subject himself to a debate he knows he cannot win, he declares himself “offended” and usually demands future silence on the issue and a public “apology” (also tiresome!) that is meant to warn-off others from attempting to address it.

I used to call this ‘The “I’m Offended” Game,” and I’ve seen it played — often when the interlocutor is flustered and cannot muster a more rationally compelling response — in countless academic conversations over the course of my fifteen years of undergraduate and graduate education.  The conversation is rolling along, point-counterpoint, point-counterpoint, in a roughly linear and logical manner, until someone decides to grasp the snitch and win the whole game in one fell swoop.

“As a woman, I’m offended you would say that.”  Translation: you are a misogynist who would gladly impose a brutal patriarchy if you could.  Game over.

“As a 1/64th Native American, I find that notion offensive.”  Translation: you stand on the side of the white colonialists and cultural imperialists, who by the way gave the Native Americans blankets infected with disease.  Game over.

“As a Christian/Buddhist/Atheist, I’m offended at your comment.”  Translation: you are hateful and ignorant of any religion apart from your own, and if you do not apologize then I am going to take my complaint to the Dean.  Game over.

There is a near-term effect to this kind of maneuver, and a long-term effect.  In the near term, the flow of the conversation ends.  Any consideration of logic or evidence is thrown out the window.  What you have said may or may not be factually wrong, but it is certainly morally wrong, or at the very least politically wrong, and you must apologize.  Even if you are not wrong, you are in the wrong, and your interlocutor bears no responsibility to dignify your offensive comment with a reply.  Also in the near term, you may find that you have to defend yourself to the professor or to the head of the department or to the Dean of the school,

I must be giving the impression that I was a veritable flame-thrower in class discussions.  That’s not really so.  I relished intellectual combat when I was a teenager, but I quickly lost my taste for it when our philosophical differences became deep wedges dividing me from several people close to me.  After that, I did not disagree with people in discussions because I enjoyed disagreement; I disagreed because I felt the truth (at least, the truth as well as I could understand it) was being misrepresented and maligned.  I am old fashioned: I do, quite honestly, I feel a burning passion to defend the truth.  I hate the thought of upsetting people.  I really do.  And yet I feel compelled to enter into some of the most controversial topics known to humankind because I care about the truth and I care that people should find the truth.

While my doctorate came through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, I took many courses at the Divinity School.  I remember one in particular where a young woman, a Th.D. student with whom I had many disagreements (she was nominally Christian, but extremely liberal and militantly feminist), mentioned her disgust and outrage at missionaries to the Native American tribes.  I made the point — and I swear it was this mildly put — that not all Christian missionaries had completely evil motives.  She was so appalled that she sat in stunned disbelief for a few moments, and once she had regained the power of speech she explained that she was offended.  That effectively ended the conversation.  The rest of the conversation centered on her offense and her troubled attempt to patch together some psychical well-being after my (apparently) blazingly offensive comment.  I refused to apologize, except to say, “I did not mean to cause you offense, but this seems like a pretty minimal and unobjectionable claim.  Surely there were some missionaries who at least had some good motives.”

I came to the professor’s next office hour and sat outside to wait my turn — and heard through the open doorway that it was the same student inside with the professor, complaining about the damage that my comment had done to her soul.  How could I defend the evil institution of Christian missionaries?  When she left, she blanched at the site of me outside the office and walked away swiftly.  The next time I saw her, I actually did apologize for offending her, but this clearly did not satisfy her.  She was going to be offended until I agreed with her in full.  I immediately hated myself for apologizing for speaking the truth — and it made clear to me that there would be no satisfying this kind of person.  Give her an inch, and she’ll demand a mile.

The long-term consequence is far worse.  While it’s helpful to be aware of the objections of your critics and detractors, it’s not helpful to be paralyzed by them.  But the classroom became a place that was littered with landmines, a place where you could not speak freely for fear of reaping the whirlwind.  Our social (and national) conversation erodes as we cannot speak clearly to one another, as we exchange sentiment and anger for evidence and argumentation, or — worse — as we hide our beliefs from one another and seal ourselves into hermetic chambers of isolated news and opinion.  This is rarely appreciated.  There are many causes for the balkanization of our political culture — but political correctness takes a huge share of the blame.  We withdraw into our own worlds where we all believe alike and do not offend one another — and soon thereafter we cannot understand one another either, like tribesmen separated by mountain ranges whose languages develop in seclusion until, when the tribes reestablish contact, they cannot understand one another.

And it’s not merely external.  We internalize the lengthy list of questions we cannot ask and things we cannot say.  Our thoughts become armed against us, and we’re no longer free to think clearly and critically and without inhibition.

“I’m offended.”  It’s a dangerous game to play.  In the short term you gain a specious “win.”  In the long term, you erode the bonds that hold us together.  Thanks for that.

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  • Joshua Tibbetts

    Hello Mr. Dalrymple,

    I just wanted to let you know that I greatly appreciated this article. I felt that it was very thorough and concise and I appreciate your highly intellectual approach to your writing.
    Keep up the good work,
    An “unoffended” reader,

    -Josh Tibbetts

  • Brings to mind Milan Kundera’s description of “Homo Sentimentalis,” in his wonderful novel, “Immortality.”

    “Homo Sentimentalis cannot be defined as a man with feelings (for we all have feelings), but as a man who has raised feelings to a category of value. As soon as feelings are seen as a value, everyone wants to feel; and because we all like to pride ourselves on our values, we have a tendency to show off our feelings.”

    “As soon as we want to feel…feeling is no longer feeling but an imitation of feeling, a show of feeling.”

  • Woman of a Certain Age

    And yet there are those Asperger’s types, those emotionally stunted people, who cannot see that their own “truthfulness” is merely rude, obnoxious, hurtful behavior. They hide behind their “speaking the truth” as they coldly, bluntly refuse to see the humanity in others, people get hurt, yet those people — the hurt people — are the bad guys for daring to speak up.

    And around and around and around it goes…

    Elizabeth Scalia is one of the most hypersensitive people on the planet. She’ll let you know when she’s offended right-quick, but dare to speak up for yourself around that gargantuan narcissist, and she not only goes into full-on attack mode, but she plays that retarded baby-game where she gets all her twitter “fans” to gang-bang her target.

    Scalia is an astounding hypocrite, plus she’s starting to look like a drunken shrew half the time. I mean, get off Twitter already, stop flirting with men half your age, posting cringingly embarassing pics of yourself in a pathetic attempt to look coy and cute and come-hither, and go. to. sleep.

    Plus, if she doesn’t have the balls to speak directly to people and say what she wants to say, then her whinging and whining about how it’s unfaaaiiirrr, wahwahwah, that people don’t agree with her and her, ah, big gay entourage, who cares what she thinks?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Okay…Since Elizabeth is a personal friend of mine, not to mention a colleague, and I’m guessing that I’ve interacted with her personally quite a bit more than you have, I’d like to tell you that you’re wrong about her, and that you seem to be hyper-suspicious of her motives, assuming that you know precisely what they are and assuming that they are the worst motives possible. Elizabeth will respond with argumentation; I cannot think of a single instance where I’ve seen her declare “I’m offended” and that’s the end of the argument.

      I agree with you, though, that there are those who are simply hurtful and obnoxious, and that claims of “offense” are not always unmerited, and that “speaking the truth” should not be an excuse to speak in disrespectful ways. I see that on both sides. When I point out a caricature of evangelicals, I always get a few who respond that they are “just telling the truth, painful though it may be for you to hear it.” And, yes, there are hyper-conservatives who will make the same claim when they’re speaking in dreadful ways about gays or etc. As you said, round and round it goes.

      • Woman Of A Certain Age

        Her entire post is passive-aggressive — that’s the hypocrisy. She gets to kvetch and whine and get her friends to pat her on the back and tell her how special she is, but she doesn’t have the balls to confront people directly, which is twice as hypocritical because at least someone who tells someone directly that they are pissed off by what they said, and no matter how many fakey-fake BS non-apology apologies they make, they’re still freakin’ pissed off is direct.

        Sweetie, I’ve so had it with this weird, online-replacement-church for the real Catholic Church that my new tactic is to do unto them just as they’ve done unto others. Don’t see the humanity in me? Fine. I’ll turn a blind eye to yours, too. Works for them when it suits them, now it works for me.

        Funny how it’s always okay when THEY do it, but how it’s just oh so awful when someone else does the same thing right back at them.

        Scalia promotes the worst kind of behavior, and she does it because she enjoys being mean about people. When she gets called on it, she goes into passive-aggressive, holier-than-thou mode.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Wow. Seriously? You are *so far off* about Elizabeth that it’s simply astonishing. She very often confronts people directly when she believes they’re in the wrong, whether those are writers or politicians or even her own bloggers, and she never cries “I’m offended” but explains her view of what is right and wrong. I really hope you consider — even if you’re not willing to admit it online — what’s driving you to so despise someone you have — I believe — never met personally, or at least know very little. “Do unto them just as they’ve done unto others” — thank goodness that Jesus didn’t agree.

          • Woman Of A Certain Age

            She sure has you whipped, doesn’t she? She’s using you, dear. You’ll see.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            Eh, I’ve enjoyed her blog for a long time. I recruited her to Patheos, and I’m the Director of Content who oversees the Catholic Channel, where she is the managing editor. I’m not saying she’s a saint, I’m just saying your venom is absurd and unwarranted.

        • David S.

          Ma’am I am a bit confused by your posts. I came here from another link and enjoyed the article, and I do consider myself a painfully honest person. I do say things that may offend others, but what I say is the truth and I would rather do that then lie to a person and give them a false sense of whatever.

          Now to your post, you come in here and blatantly attack another blogger, one whom has not even posted on this particular one. You through out extremely charged bombs at this individual and to me it appears so you can get attention. Ma’am you are doing what you accuse Elizabeth of doing (I have never read her articles so I have no opinion on her), you see you accuse her of being “passive-aggressive” yet you fail to actually point out when and where she did this. As the accuser the burden of proof falls on you to present it, give us a link to where this happened. You also claim to be Catholic from what it appears but your language does not bear the title that you claim.

          As a non-denominational Christian and with that last statement in now way is the internet supposed to be a replacement for the Church. The internet can be a place for growing in your spiritual walk by reading insight from fellow believers but it should not replace the local fellowship that you can only get by being in your Church.

          My last point I would like to make is that you should not get so angry by what others are posting. If and I repeat if Elizabeth is doing as you say then you should lovingly attempt to confront her and explain why you believe that she is this way. When you go on an assault of ones character with reckless abandonment as above it lends no credit to your view point and only causes people to disregard what you have to say.

          With that I hope you have a great day.

          • David S.

            Lol…I need to proof read before posting…
            Paragraph 2 sentence 2 through should be threw.
            Paragraph 2 sentence 1 now should be know.

            I am sure there are other grammatical errors, but those two stood out when a re-read it.

          • Woman Of A Certain Age

            That she wrote that particular post was passive-aggressive.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      One more thing. Do you think it’s a bit, well, hypocritical to criticize Elizabeth for being critical and hypocritical when you are being quite critical of her, “bluntly refus[ing] to see the humanity” in her and being “merely rude, obnoxious [and] hurtful”? Just a thought.

  • TD–

    I like this a lot. The one change I might make is to the phrase “political correctness,” which current practice attaches to people on the left, atheists, secular humanists, etc. You make clear in this piece that we are all guilty of this balkanization, whether we’re on the left or right, Christians or atheists.

    But I’m not offended.


    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yeah, I think what is “politically correct” depends on context. In ultra-conservative settings it might not be “politically correct,” for instance, to say that Obama is devout. Or etc. But anyway, I agree with you.

  • Jason Garber

    Just wanted to say thank you for this post. It’s a wonderful post to read on July 4th because one of the most beautiful qualities of our great country is its commitment to free speech. Yet, free speech is not a reality simply because we have the first amendment. The principle of free speech must be defended or we will create a culture where we will have free speech “in principle” but not in practice. (See many universities for an example of this.) The most important thing to understand about free speech is that it is UNNATURAL. No one wants to protect the speech of people whose opinions they believe are harmful to society. We want free speech for ourselves, but we are ambivalent about whether our neighbor (who may think a lot of crazy things) should enjoy free speech to proclaim his ideas. It is only when we cease being perpetually offended and realize that other people have a RIGHT to offend us that we can come together to honor our beautiful first amendment rights. Thank you so much for this post. It put a smile on my face.

  • Elizabeth Nolan

    @Womanofacertainage Elizabeth Scalia puts her name on her posts. It’s hard to take your comments seriously when you remain anonymous. And turning the Golden Rule on its head doesn’t seem like a terribly effective tactic, but I could be wrong.

  • peter

    If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
    (George Orwell, Proposed Preface to ‘Animal Farm’ )