September 24, 2010

On Offending Others

Don't piss me offI bet that you've known at least a handful of people during the course of your life who seemed to be offended too easily. I have known quite a few. Some are even family members.

Maybe they are offended by "bad" language, going so far as to gasp in horror when they hear "a swear word." Or maybe they had difficulty with any sort of criticism, seeming so emotionally fragile that they would burst into tears if somebody dared to laugh at them. Perhaps they were Christian and protested whenever someone dared to use the name of their "lord" in a way they didn't like.

You have all known people like this. They might have seemed almost as if they were looking for the next offense to the point where they would see it where nobody else could. I think that these people have an important lesson to offer, and that we would do well to learn it.

We often talk as if another person has the power to offend us.
That [thing that you did or said] is offensive!
or
Your use of profanity offends me. Please stop it.
But the reality is that the other person's speech or behavior is only half the story, maybe even less. The person taking offense is at least an equally important part of this tale. The lesson our easily offended people have for us is that we all differ in our thresholds for taking offense. The person taking offense is at least as important as the one accused of doing the offending, perhaps more so.

I suspect you have also known people who rarely seemed to take offense at much of anything. They like to laugh and are willing to laugh at themselves. Nothing seems to rattle them, and attempts to shock them fall flat. Again, individuals differ in the their thresholds for feeling offended.

This is one part of why I have not found the "don't be a dick" debate taking place in the atheist community to be all that interesting. I can usually control my own behavior, but I have no control over the behavior of others and even less control over their feelings. If someone is going to take offense at something I've written, that is their choice. Unless I know them reasonably well, I'll never be able to predict how they might react.

Some people seem to be offended simply because I exist and am an atheist. Others seem to take offense at my refusal to respect religion. But appearances are deceiving. Those who are determined to be offended will accomplish their goal with or without me. I'm almost irrelevant in the equation.

Does this mean I have no responsibility at all if something I write offends others? No, I wouldn't go quite that far. I need to be reasonable, but part of being reasonable here means that there is little point in pretending that I am responsible for another person's feelings.

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