More and more it seems like people are getting easier and easier to offend. Course language, nudity, displays of affection, homosexuality, and even just disagreeing with someone seem to illicit an extreme reaction in some people. Often they become angry, belligerent and sometimes even violent. But why? What is it that causes these people to react this way? Well, it’s not really a simple issue, but I will do my best to explain my own findings on the matter.
I figured I would revisit this concept because it’s been a while and I’ve expanded my theory to be both simpler and more comprehensive. The old hypothesis has been absorbed a bit into this one, in that I can now explain it in terms of this new framework.
First things first, let’s look at the mind. Because I cannot have literal things in my mind, I must represent things symbolically (See Solipsism Plus for more details). It’s much like building a miniature version of the world in your mind. This mental world you build is further populated with mental models of all the individual things you could think of. We also build mental models of ourselves. The way we construct this self model can sometimes result in being particularly susceptible to being offended.
Part of the problem is that we often confuse the model for the thing itself. A chair is a thing wholly separate from anyone’s mental model of that chair just as the word “chair” is not a chair itself. Likewise, I am not your mental model of me. I am not even my own mental model of me. There is a big difference between damaging me and damaging my self model. However, many (perhaps most) don’t make this distinction. What happens then is that an attack, threat or challenge to one’s self model is perceived as a direct attack.
Now comes the fun part. If our self model is built such that it is dependent on other concepts then an attack on any of those concepts could be perceived as an attack on our self model. Imagine that your self model was a statue which is propped up by pillars. Any attack or weakening of those pillars could be disastrous to that statue.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that I’m a devout Christian. Let’s also say that I believe I would be nothing without god. That is, my self model is dependent upon my god model. When someone suggests that god does not exist, I see this as an attack on god and by extension, an attack on me. I then react as if I had been physically attacked because I also confuse my self model with my literal self. This can happen with many religions because it can be beneficial for a religion if its members feel strongly attached to it and defend it as they would defend themselves. The unfortunate side effect is that it makes for some rather grumpy fundamentalists. The fact of the matter is that what I believe or don’t believe about your, or any other, god has no bearing on anything, least of which who you are as a person. Furthermore, the strength of one’s faith is never known until it is tested.
Now, imagine a person who, as part of their self model, defines themselves as a MAN. Their definition of what a man is happens to be hyper masculine and does not make any room for anything less manly than the Brawny paper towel guy. When exposed to males which challenge that definition of what it means to be a man, such as effeminate males, then it could be perceived as an attack on their pillar of masculinity and thus an attack on themselves. But is their reaction reasonable? The thing is, there are effeminate men and there are also masculine men. Heck, there are masculine homosexual men. These are still men and it has no bearing on who I am as a person. They’ve got certain traits and we share some of those traits but the way one acts and who one is sexually attracted to are not married to the concept of what it means to be a man.
Pride is also somewhat similar because we often define ourselves by the features we’re most proud of. For example, consider the phrase “I am smart”. If your intelligence is a foundational feature of your self model, such that without it you wouldn’t be yourself, then a challenge to your intelligence may be perceived as an attack against your self model. So what is the real problem here? It’s the pride. If I value my intelligence so much that I feel I could not live in a world where I did not possess it, then something is wrong. Once who I am become contingent upon my intelligence, then it sets me up to be offended quite often because nobody knows everything and we all occasionally act the fool. If I were offended every time I looked stupid, I would never learn anything. In fact, if I were offended every time my intelligence were challenged, then I would be deserving of having my intelligence challenged as this sentiment could only serve to hinder my pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
Another way this works is through context. The stage we stand on is another one of those symbols I was talking about. If who I am relies on the stage upon which I stand, then suggesting that I’m on a different stage could be perceived as a challenge to my self model. For example, lets say your model of the world includes a prudish level of decency such that nudity should never be shown in public. Who you are depends on this being true as your prudence is a defining part of your character. When you see public nudity, and especially when you see it being accepted, such as the public display of sculptures depicting nudity, then your model of the world has been challenged, and by extension, your self model has been challenged. But is that prudish response necessary? Is it not possible that the world now lives by sensibilities which I do not hold to and vice versa? Being able to see yourself as an actor on many different stages is a sign of versatility of character.
I once asked a racist “how would you feel if you were born black?” to which they responded “I would kill myself.” They didn’t realize that if they were born into a different body and in this different social context that they would not necessarily hold that sentiment. They could not only had their self model propped up by their “whiteness” but also felt as if the world was such that even the black people should know that they should desire death. It didn’t occur to them that it could be any other way. Whether or not this inability to put themselves in the shoes of someone else was a symptom or a cause of their racist beliefs I have no idea, however, it certainly did result in the person being offended quite often and for the stupidest things. The person who can put themselves in the shoes (or the bare feet) of another and is able to divorce their ethnic background, social standing, gender, sexuality, etc… from their self model has a diversity of character which allows for them to more easily gain insight on what it might be like to be someone else.
So what should we do when we’re offended? Most people lash out, but I urge you to lash in. When I am offended, I take it as an opportunity for introspection. Someone has shone a light into an odd part of my self model and I’ve realized that I need to do some reevaluation. I try to find peace with both the offending statement being true and false. For instance, I can live with myself if I were stupid or intelligent, gay or straight, ugly or pretty, and so on. Part of this involves not only recognizing the above concepts but also building one’s self not by propping it up but by having your self model sitting firmly on the ground and behaving more like a basket within which you can place various things. So instead of my intelligence being something which defines me, it is merely something I possess. It’s just another apple in the basket, if the apple gets removed, the basket is still upright and whole. It also allows me to temporarily remove and evaluate a concept from my self image while I do this introspection. This is a powerful tool for self discovery.
Take away points:
- Do not confuse the self model for the self.
- You possess traits, do not let them define you.
- When offended lash in, not out.
I’m still working on this theory of offense. The model fits pretty well with the data that I’ve gathered so far. If you have anything to add or a criticism, I would be glad to hear it. If you were offended by what I had to say, then this message is addressed to you. Get over it. :P