To be offended or not to be… that is your decision
There is a sense that we, as a society, are taking offence more readily and with more passion than in previous times. Trolling on Twitter and ranting threads on Facebook are becoming more common and are often the result of one person’s opinion differing from another’s. One example of this is that, at Universities, there has been a rise in guest lectures being cancelled and speakers being uninvited. Attacks come from from both the right and left (politically) and speakers are shouted down with intolerance. On the one hand there seems to be a fear of hearing someone offer an opinion which is contrary to our own. On the other hand, we are quick to take offence and claim that the ‘other’ is in some way offending us by offering such an opinion.
Several psychological and philosophical approaches can provide insight into this trend.
1. Intentions vs Consequences. Emmanuel Kant proposed the Categorical Imperative which is a moral code for individuals to make decisions based on correct moral intentions. In essence, a set of universal laws of how to act appropriately (for example, I should not lie, I should not steal etc). From this standpoint an action is judged primarily based on the intention of the actor. If I say something that I believe is based on an honourable intention, then you shouldn’t be offended. Indeed, if you are offended then you are inappropriately so.
Alternatively, one might judge actions on their consequences. It doesn’t matter what I intend by saying something, it is how you interpret it that counts. However honourable my intentions, if you take offence, then I am in the wrong.
Our society is moving inexorably towards a consequentialist position. This dangerous, because no matter how carefully I act, no matter how honourable my intentions, if you are offended then I burn…
2. Drift towards the primacy of the subjective. Along with the above, there has also been a shift away from trying to judge events in an objective way, to a focus on subjective feelings. For example, If an event has made me angry, and I am feeling very angry, then who are you to question my reality? Who are you to say that I shouldn’t be angry? In other words, one’s feelings are more important than objective truths. It is difficult to explain this drift but may relate to the way in which our society has shifted away from a community-focused one (where the greater good and objective standpoints are important) towards the importance of the individual (and hence one’s feelings are the arbiter of value). There are risks to the primacy of the subjective, not least as it precludes the concept of fairness that demands we should listen to both sides of an issue before making judgement. Go here for a much more erudite exploration of this issue. It also has implications for the promotion free speech – we should always be willing to listen to arguments that disagree with our own opinions. It is cognitively healthy. Even if we feel angry, frustrated or passionately opposed.
3. Epictetus and the interpretation of events. A Greek stoic philosopher in Roman times, Epictetus famously said:
We are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of them
Here begins the basis of the solution. The Stoics were great ‘acceptors.’ They realised that the world can be a bit rubbish at times and so they argued that the best way to live was by being tolerant, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and accepting that sometimes life throws a curveball at you. (Probably not in those words though.)
Cognitive Behavioural Toolkit. The writings of the Stoics has been foundational in the development of what we commonly call Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – a therapeutic approach which considers a person’s attitude as fundamental to their mental health. With illnesses such as depression and anxiety it is often the case that an individual has an irrational interpretation of the world (sometimes called cognitive biases) and that CBT can be used to help correct those biases and help someone see the world in a more ‘realistic’ way. Or at least a little closer to reality than previously. The cognitive behavioural toolkit, a range of exercises and interventions, can be used with healthy individuals too. Indeed, we can all engage with CBT. And it would probably make the world a better place. More rational, more tolerant, more focused on the greater good and more healthy (both mentally and physically).
So here’s the hypothesis: We are seeing an increase in mental health issues across the population, though particularly in younger people; we are seeing an increase in intolerance and in extremist action; we have promoted a society where individual feelings take precedence over objective realities; where consequences matter more than intentions; and where we are unwilling to listen to the other side of the argument. Is a fundamental part of this about our attitudes and the underlying cognitive biases that are taking roots in our minds?
We could all take a course of CBT (I can think of worse ways to invest our time). But more simply, when we feel ourselves becoming outraged or offended, we could take a moment to question our responses and consider whether they reflect the reality of the situation, or whether there may be alternative interpretations that we have not considered. Can we move a little closer to objective truth? This aligns with the Principle of Charity:
One should always interpret other people’s statements in their best, most reasonable form
This Blog was inspired by the book “The coddling of the American mind.” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt