In today’s modern public square, social media has given everyone a platform to express their views and opinions to a global audience. There is a kaleidoscope of diverse perspectives being put forward, ranging from polar extremes to the expression of the status quo. With the increase in the number of opinions made public, there will always be an increase in opposing or competing perspectives. 

While in many scenarios diversity of perspectives is beneficial and even desired, the presence of difference always produces the potential for conflict. Increasingly we see individuals or groups taking offence to the opinions and perspectives expressed by others, resulting in conflict that plays out online, in the media or in our social circles. This is destructive on many levels; often damaging the careers, reputations and lives of the individuals involved and eroding the trust in the institutions of our society. 

Understanding the psychology that underpins offence can help us as individuals manage our own internal processes and approach difference from a place of freedom. If enough individuals are adopting such an approach, collectively we build and sustain a society based on freedom.

Defining Offence

The Oxford Dictionary defines offence as: 

  1. A thing that constitutes a violation of what is judged to be right or natural.
  2. Annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself.

Firstly, let’s clarify. In this article are not talking about the kind of offence that constitutes a black and white breach of law (i.e. He committed an offence under Section 5.1 of the Criminal Code). The offence we are discussing can be summarised as a perceived violation of what is right that elicits an emotional reaction. Such emotional reactions range from annoyance to resentment or in extreme cases, even anger. 

On a personal and individual level, what we judge to be right takes the form of our values – those ideals, characteristics and principles that we believe are important enough to live by. So, when someone says they are offended, we can understand that they are experiencing some form of negative emotion as a result of perceiving their values have been violated in some way. This is an important protective psychological mechanism. The unpleasant emotional reactions we experience when offended drive us to remove ourselves from the offending stimuli, which could be some sort of threat causing some sort of pain in the future. 

As an aside, I am amazed at how many people have not taken the time to identify and articulate what their values actually are. As a result, many people today jump up and down claiming to be offended without being able to articulate what specifically has offended them and why it has done so. 

A lack of personal awareness and internal insight aside, there is a common cry across much of the Western world echoing the sentiment that offence is the result of a violation of rights and a form of oppression. This has led to many social groups establishing campaigns advocating for legislated social change in the name of freedom from oppression and the protection of human rights. It is often these campaigns that become the mechanism for protracted public conflict. 

The Importance Of Perception

Let’s return to the Oxford Dictionary and highlight the word perceived in its definition of offence. The fact an individual feels offended does not automatically mean someone has done something wrong or that there has been a concrete violation. It does mean that the offended individual perceives a violation has occurred. The reality is that different things offend different people. Two people can share the same experience and one find it offensive while the other does not. It all depends on the perspective that is adopted. As the stoic philosopher Epictetus once mused, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.” It is our view of a particular event (or an expressed opinion), and the meaning we ascribe to it that determines our perspective. It is the perspective we adopt that determines whether or not we perceive a violation of values.

Many people today fail to stop and ask, is my perspective informed? Or is it based on assumption? If we find ourselves offended by an opinion expressed by an individual, do we understand the perspective of the opinion’s author and the intent behind its expression? Or are we making an assumption based on our perceptions? If we perceive a comment to violate our personal values, are we making the assumption that the author intended to impose such a violation on us personally? All too often such assumptions lead the offended party to retaliate with a personal attack, which only produces a reaction in kind, thus perpetuating the downward spiral of conflict and destruction. 

Oppression or Freedom?

When you hear someone say something you find offensive, or read an opinion that you perceive as violating your values, what choices are you making? Are you making any? The majority of people will react. A reaction occurs automatically, without conscious thought – without intentional choice. A psychological reaction allows the flood of emotion and its physiological manifestation to determine our thoughts and thinking patterns, which in turn produces our behaviour. As a result people who react  ruminate on the perceived violations. They focus on what is wrong and are controlled by their negative reaction.

People who react  ruminate on the perceived violations, wallow in offence and adopt a victim mentality.

In contrast to a reaction, a response includes a choice. A response involves an individual choosing how they will respond to the events around them. They can choose not to be offended and not to be angry. They can choose to adopt a different perspective, acknowledging that others hold different values and may be unaware of the impact of their actions. They can choose to view the situation as an opportunity to communicate their point of view or understand that of another. Or they can choose to ignore the situation entirely. 

People who respond choose to view situations as opportunities for growth.

Viktor Frankl famously wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Frankl, a psychologist interned in Auschwitz during WWII, wondered at why, in response to the cruelty of the Nazi prison guards, some people lost all morality, repaying evil for evil, yet others maintained their values continuing to show kindness to their fellow man – both Nazi and Jew alike. Frankl came to the conclusion that the last and greatest freedom that humans have is the ability to choose how we respond to what happens to us. You can take away a person’s material wealth, restrict their freedom of movement, their freedom of speech, their freedom to express their religion and any other aspect of their lives that we commonly associate with freedom, but you can never take away their ability to choose how they will respond to you when you do. You can impose oppression of any form and to any degree, but people will always have a choice in how they will respond to your actions. That choice always remains. That choice is the key. 

Making such a choice requires the individual to stop, and evaluate. Making a choice requires them to answer the following questions: 

What has happened and why has it made me feel this way?

What do I want to do and is this in line with my values, my beliefs or who I want to be?

What is the best course of action to achieve my goals and live out my values?

The answers to such questions allow an individual to make an informed choice about their thinking and their behaviour.

The focus of those who choose their response is not on what is wrong, but on what is right. They focus on doing what is right. In this way they are not being controlled, but exerting control in how they think and behave. People who choose their response are seeking to intentionally influence the situation to achieve the best outcome. This is an exercise of freedom.

Well, let me ask this question again, when you hear someone say something you find offensive, or read an opinion that you perceive as violating your values, what choices are you making? The reality is that if you stay offended, you are choosing to do so. You are choosing to operate from a position focused on what you perceive is wrong, influenced by negative thinking and adopting a perspective of oppression. Not only does this cloud your judgement and perpetuate conflict, it erodes your wellbeing, making you more vulnerable to anxiety, stress and other mental health problems. However there is another option. 

The reality is that if you stay offended, you are choosing to do so.

You can choose to respond rather than just react. You can choose to operate from a position of freedom rather than oppression. You can choose to exercise your freedom by controlling your thinking and behaviour. 

Operating from a place of freedom and control promotes your personal sense of wellbeing, facilitates clarity of thinking and helps up focus on a move towards solutions. 

I believe that as individuals, we have a responsibility to respond rather than react. I think we would all agree that Western society would greatly benefit from the collective focus of its citizens focusing on this responsibility and exercising the truest form of freedom they possess.Report this

Until next time… Lead well.