Why Take Offence?
Offence is Always Taken, Never Given
Taking offence and claiming hurt feelings are topics I have written on before. I am writing about them again, because it seems a day can’t go by without someone claiming that they are offended or their feelings are hurt because of something somebody said or did. What I am writing here applies equally to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. My main argument here is that when someone claims that they have been offended or hurt by a word, joke, cartoon, song, or even a national day of celebration, this is not true. I am not denying the event, nor am I denying the ‘emotional injury’ claimed. What I am challenging is the claim that the offence was directly caused by the event. Consider a very simple example. Two people (suppose two identical twins raised in the same environment) hear a joke. One laughs and the other claims that the joke offended them. If it was the joke that caused the offence, then why it did not offend the other brother? The joke did not directly cause the offence; it was merely a stimulus or trigger. It’s much like living next door to Greasy Gary’s Burger Bar (GGBB). I would expect that if you lived close by you would eat Gary’s burgers and put on weight. However, GGBB did not directly cause the weight gain. We have choices. Well that’s the first main message of this article in a nutshell. The second (and more important) main message will come later.
Before continuing, I shall respond to what is perhaps the number one criticism I receive on this topic: “You have no right to claim how other people should feel. Their feelings are their feelings!” Many a snowflake has told me that. Actually I do have a right to challenge people’s views and express my opinions. I’m not saying others have to believe me (although interestingly they expect that I must believe their claims that I or someone else has hurt their feelings); I’m simply offering an alternative viewpoint. If we were not allowed to challenge people’s views (which they believe are unquestionable truths) then gay people would still be considered sinners, mentally ill, and criminal; Aboriginal people would still be considered subhuman with lesser rights than other Australian citizens; women would still be in the kitchen.
Now returning to the example of gay people (and let’s not get into the SSM debate here as I think that has been settled). At one time, some ‘straight’ people took offence at the site of two gay men displaying their love and affection for each other. They (wrongly) assumed that the public display caused offence in the same way that a joke causes offence. The public display did not cause offence. Offence was taken. I shall repeat: Offence is only ever taken, never given. Consider another example. Some claim that a woman breastfeeding in public is offensive. The act itself cannot cause offence. If it could, all would be offended. Is this claimed offence any less valid than the offence assumed to be caused at the sight of an inconvenient image or joke?
The offence a person experiences (which is real) is not caused by an external event, but is simply the learnt response they use in an attempt to get their own way. Many people have learnt that if they throw a tantrum or take offence they will get the response they desire. Consider the man who has been coming home late smelling of sweet perfume. Being suspicious, his wife says: “Have you been seeing someone else.” In a loud voice he replies: “I am deeply offended! How dare you accuse me of being unfaithful.” That’s all it takes to get the outcome he desires – his wife stops accusing him. The loud voice and claim of being offended has worked for him many times in the past and so he continues to use it again. When it works, that is a reward. And behavior rewarded is behavior reinforced. The claim that our emotions are under the direct control of the actions or words of others has obvious (short-term) benefits. It is so much more comforting to the man who lacks self-control to say: “The way she was dressed caused me to be aroused,” than “I simply can’t control myself.”
The Cost of Taking Offence
Now here is the second main message of this article. In its simplest form, to claim that one has been offended by XYZ, is to claim that their emotional wellbeing is under the direct control of XYZ. So when someone claims another has offended them or hurt their feelings, they are really saying: “You caused the hurt, and I am not responsible for my feelings – you are! You have more control over my emotions than I have over them myself.” They usually go further also saying: “And when you stop doing what it is that I don’t want you to do, then my feelings will stop being hurt.”
I have been, and continue to be called all sorts of names. I have a choice in how I respond; I often choose laughter. Suppose someone called me an ape. Many would say that my accuser belittled me. Actually, he has only belittled himself. I would simply respond with: “Thanks” then continue to eat my banana. What benefits are there in making my accuser responsible for my feelings? Well there are several benefits actually, but it comes at a huge cost – the erosion of their self-esteem. I won’t go into detail here, but just briefly, claiming to have hurt feelings can result in financial gain, the avoidance of unpleasant truths, and power over others, such as the extraction of an apology from another. If I claim to be hurt or offended, then usually the insistence for an apology can be expected. And once received, the apology validates my belief that my feelings are under the control of another. The offering of an apology is fine, but to demand one only erodes self-esteem. The apology from my accuser is for his benefit, not mine.
So let’s apply what I’ve written to Australia Day celebrations and the assumed offence it causes some Aboriginal people. And for now, I won’t even address the inconsistency of why we see many people protest on the streets and claim to be upset and offended by Australia Day, but are silent on the atrocities of the high rates of child abuse and violence in Aboriginal communities today. To claim that Australia Day celebrations are the cause of offence, hurt, or grief, is to make someone else responsible for one’s feelings. That is extremely disempowering. Do we wish to continue to disempower Australia’s most disempowered group of people? I hope not. If you claim to be upset or offended by Australia Day celebrations, then rather than insisting on changing the date, perhaps changing your understanding of being offended is the better option. Thankfully many Aboriginal people celebrate on 26 January because they can.