Dear reader, what follows is another of my “stream of consciousness” pieces where I engage in a cephalic evacuation of thoughts and ideas on a specific subject, with the hope that it will make some degree of sense once laid out on the page. Judge for yourselves.
“I find that remark offensive.”
“We’ve removed the content as it was deemed offensive by some.”
If you’ve been on the world-wide-inter-web-net for more than 17.3 seconds you’ve likely run into a post, comment or news item that talks about how a person or group is offended by something another person or group has said.
“An epidemic!” some call it, often leading to even more cries of foul play from those who feel their personal and ethical boundaries have been crossed.
I’m not sure I’d call it an epidemic. I think it’s simply the result of millions of humans suddenly having the opportunity to be heard (and read) by millions of other humans. Within such a miasma of personalities, chemical reactions are bound to occur, not all of them pleasant.
Many of these cases are misunderstandings of course. Such mishaps are normal and relatively common in human interaction. One hopes that level-headedness and intelligence will intervene and diffuse these situations before they escalate, and quite often, that’s exactly what happens.
In person at least.
Online however, the dynamics change. The inbuilt anonymity of the internet, combined with the security of knowing that any escalation is likely to go no further than harsh words, often leads to behaviour that would shock most of us with it’s vitriol and vehemence.
The reactions to such behaviour is often equally disproportionate, with cries of deep offence and personal umbrage being tossed about for the most innocent of statements, with no regard for the intentions behind the words or the person making them (more on that in a moment.)
There are those who lament the “hypersensitivity” of our modern world, and there may be some merit to this idea. It certainly seems as if people are more apt to cry foul than in previous eras.
Dear reader, you may wonder how I govern my own online communication, especially seeing as I festoon the interwebz with so much of my pernicious literary debris. The truth is, I haven’t had much cause to worry about offending others, because for the most part, it hasn’t been a issue.
The reason for this is a simple one: I have no intention of offending anyone. I don’t alter my words to avoid possible offence (that’s frankly impossible), I simply infuse everything I say and do with positive intentions.
That may seem as if it’s lacking in scientific rigour. Of course “scientific rigour” is largely nonsense, but that’s… another tale for another time.
Your intentions have a tremendous effect on your communication. If you intend to upset, you’ll use stronger language, words and phrases that you KNOW will anger people. When you do that, you really can’t complain if someone calls you on it.
Having said that, there’s another side to the idea of offence. It’s a conscious choice.
Don’t believe me? Consider the way we say it: We don’t say, “Bob gave offence,” we say, “I took offence to Bob’s words.”
Offence (or nearly any other emotional response) is, under most circumstances, a conscious choice. I say “under most circumstances” because obviously mental health issues, chemical interactions and other factors can play a role as well.
When someone tells me they are offended by something I’ve said – assuming my intention was positive – my first inclination is to congratulate them. They got what exactly they wanted. They’re offended. I don’t do that for obvious reasons, but the logic stands.
Not only do we CHOOSE how we react to the stimuli around us, but that choice is more powerful than we realize.
Ponder this: If someone is TRYING to upset you (note the intention there), then getting offended is EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED. You’ve also just handed them a blueprint for doing it again in the future. They now know exactly which buttons to push.
If however, someone is simply making a statement of belief or opinion, (again note the intention) then being offended simply puts the other person on the defensive and destroys ANY possibility of intelligent discourse.
Looking at this it can seem as if I’m suggesting that offence is terrible and should be avoided. That’s not entirely true. It’s THE WAY WE DISPLAY IT that causes the issues. The feeling that something may be inappropriate is useful in that it can help us to create a more positive world.
“Well that’s all well and good Mackenzie, but how in the name of Joe Pesci do I determine someone’s intention?”
An excellent query my dearest reader, and extra points for invoking the name of the Almighty Joe. The answer to that question depends on a number of factors:
- Do you know the person? That alone should tell you something about their intentions. If not, perhaps you don’t know them well enough?
- The tone and words used. We often hear without really listening, and as a result we fail to pick up on subtle cues such as humour (failed or not).
- The context in which the comment was made. Was there something happening at the time when the person said what they said? Were they commenting on something, or speaking extemporaneously?
- Human error. Sometimes we say and do things without thinking. Inappropriate remarks, stumbling, running for President… they are examples of human error.
The fact is, MOST situations of offence can be diffused or even avoided if we’d just stop REACTING to everything and actually DISCUSS things like intelligent carbon-based lifeforms. Image the world that would create… It’s a pipe dream, but one I cling to.
Let me conclude with a rubric I use when navigating this issue. It’s by no means perfect, but it works for me:
I take 150% responsibility for the words and actions, and the intentions behind them.
I take ZERO responsibility for how someone else interprets them.
To put that more succinctly:
What I say/do is my responsibility. How you take it, is yours.