Taking Offense

An epidemic that seems to be spreading faster than Ebola.

Posted Oct 11, 2014

It seems that people are getting offended more easily.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. For example, there’s ever less tolerance for a statement or action that could even vaguely be considered racist, sexist, homophobic, elitist, or ageist. Some would say zero tolerance, even for a mild joke in that area, is the best approach to eradicating it.

On the other hand, hypersensitivity to such offenses has potential downsides. For example, it could encourage making such claims even when illegitimate or trivial as a way to deflect attention from the true issue. For example, an older worker overhears his boss saying, “This place needs fresh blood.” In fact, the older worker may not be pulling his weight but to avoid getting fired, he files a grievance claiming a hostile work environment for older workers. He does that to help insulate himself from getting fired—If he is terminated, he could claim it was retaliation.

Another example: People seem ever more likely to take offense at being criticized. A poor employee evaluation is as likely to yield a defensive reaction as an introspective one. Perhaps we've taken too far the exhortations to use praise over criticism and to build people’s self-esteem.

People also seem more easily offended by an ideological deviation from The Orthodoxy. Ironic in that we’re taught to celebrate diversity, people seem ever more intolerant of ideological diversity. Today, in most educated circles, there’s little risk of offending anyone if you call for more redistribution of resources from society’s haves to its have-nots: for example, more attention to closing the achievement gap, single-payer health care, more efforts to help the long-term unemployed. In contrast, you're at serious risk of offending if you're against redistribution, for example, against redistributing school funds from high-ability students to low achievers. Another example: At a party recently, someone decried the accelerating federal disparate impact lawsuits, which pressure school districts to suspend students proportionately by race and for employers to treat felon and non-felon job applicants equally. She opined that was unfair to employers, to law-abiding job applicants, and to children who happened to be of the wrong race. A guy immediately ridiculed her as insensitive to “privilege,” whereupon everyone remained silent. The celebration of diversity now seems to stop as soon as one veers right of center. It’s ironic that the Left continues to focus on the evils of McCarthyite censorship of 60 years ago, yet today firmly wields the censorship/censureship scythe when it comes to judging, let alone publishing thought counter to The Orthodoxy. It’s like the citizenry in Orwell’s Animal Farm who unquestioningly mouthed: “Four legs good, two legs bad” until the Powers deemed, “Four legs good, two legs better.”

Also ironic, we seem less likely to be offended by things that are unarguably offensive. For example, we now accept as normal that people don’t respond to our emails or phone messages, even if it’s a job seeker who worked hard on an application. We don’t get offended at drug-company commercials designed to scare us into buying drugs that, if were so good, would require only a journal article read by physicians, not millions of dollars of advertising to the easily duped general public, the cost of which get added to what we pay for medicine. Not to mention, no one wants their TV recreation interrupted by long lists of side-effects, from diarrhea to death.

In sum, we’re getting offended by the wrong things. Especially important, society would be better if we appreciated rather than got offended by criticism and if we were offended that we’re made to feel scared to be politically incorrect. Not only does that stifle our freedom of expression, the censoring of the free marketplace of ideas encourages societal stasis rather than progress. 

As I end my radio program, “We find comfort among those who agree with us; growth among those who don’t.”

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net