2020 shattered some personal delusions I’ve been tripping on. If I could bottle up the year into one lesson, it would be this:
There is a huge difference between disagreeing and getting offended. Find ways to get offended more often.
Disagreement vs. Offense
Most of us say “I disagree” when we really mean to say “That offends me.”
To disagree is to provide an observation that counters a specific claim.
To get offended is to have a strong aversion to something.
Disagreement is a conflict on “what caused what.” Some disagreements can be resolved by testing and generating facts. We call this scientific inquiry. Some disagreements cannot be immediately resolved, and so we grant trust and see what happens (“Disagree and commit,” for example).
Taking offense is a matter of self-conception and identity. Something conjures a memory or symbol that pisses you off or terrifies you. When you’re offended by something, you get to look directly into the cauldron of forces that make you who you are. What are your values and principles? How have you suffered? What do you stand for?
I disagree that Joe Biden’s presidency will lead to positive change in America. I am offended if someone calls this tacit support for Donald Trump.
I disagree that modern feminism has helped men become better men. I am offended if someone calls this toxic masculinity.
The disagreements are specific, and we could unravel them by teasing out definitions. What does “positive change” mean? What does “better men” mean?
The offenses, though, require storytelling and memories. Why am I so eager to dissociate from “Trump” and “toxic masculinity”? What experiences have I had that upset me to be even associated with them? What does that say about who I think I am?
The Muddy Ground
This seems pretty pedantic so far, right? The problems start when we pretend the distinction between disagreement and offense does not exist. This pretense comes in two forms:
We claim we are disagreeing when we are actually offended.
We take offense, so we shut down discourse.
#1: Disagreeing, but actually offended
I heard a story recently about a guy who is vehemently opposed to hunting. He has tight logic for why hunting is immoral.
His father took him hunting regularly as a child. Father verbally abused him whenever they went. Hunting scarred the man and so he couldn’t conceive himself as someone who hunts.
He is first and foremost offended by the notion of hunting. The disagreement comes after.
There are forces that drive us to have strong preferences. We construct psychological defenses against anyone trying to soften these preferences. This is natural — we just want to be safe.
In the guise of rationality, we tend to fly into debate without examining our underlying motivations. We think we’re arguing facts when we’re really fortressing our existing feelings.
We forget that we’re all walking around with scars. And the only language we have to express pain is strong preference. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to talk about hurt, only how to justify it.
So a lot of arguments are first and foremost attempts to protect our experiences. We disagree when we’re actually offended.
#2: Taking offense, so shutting shit down
In the previous example, at least there is discourse. We’ve brought that fighting and fortressing spirit with us, but it still wishes to communicate, persuade, convince, and connect.
There remains the possibility of understanding, if only one or both sides realize they aren’t even disagreeing with each other (not yet, at least).
In the second pretense of disagreement, discourse is shut down entirely.
We encounter claims and perspectives that we perceive are an existential threat. We feel that our identity and our life is at stake. Discussion is not possible.
So we resort to whatever we can to create a villain out of the situation. And then we go to war — call it names, slander it, confuse it, and do anything we can to get it to shut up or prove us right in some small way.
Here’s an example.
In 2017, Google employee James Damore shared a memo that caused so much controversy that it got him fired.
Damore’s memo claimed that there are reasons other than injustice + bias that explain why there are more men than women in software engineering roles.
A massive shitstorm ensued, and I witnessed otherwise thoughtful people calling each other sexist pigs, fascists, bigots, etc. If you haven’t read the memo yourself, give it a read. Are you disagreeing, or are you offended?
The heresy trial of Galileo. The 17th century astronomer wrote a note defending his view that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. A shitstorm ensued, the Church got shutdown-offended, and Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
We’re so offended, we can’t even disagree, we shut shit down.
Get Offended More
So here is what 2020 taught me.
Disagreement is only natural. Getting offended is also only natural. We learn so much when we have to grapple with each other disagreeing and taking offense. Even if it hurts at first.
But getting so offended that you need to shut shit down is harmful. Why?
We start to avoid situations where we may get offended.
We get offended by more and more stuff.
We grow incapable of understanding other life perspectives.
We become blind to reality until reality chomps down on our asses.
There’s an old saying that problems grow large enough for us to notice them. But if we’re so averse to offensive things, we’ll miss out on things we need to see and hear.
Get offended more often.
If the inertia of modern life lulls us into pleasure, comfort, and inoffensiveness, constantly seek out ways to shake out of it.
By getting offended more, you actually get to figure out who you are and what you care about. You react less, respond more. You develop real compassion. You practice alchemy upon yourself.
Intellectually offended … seek out opinions and views that piss you off.
Emotionally offended … seek out experiences and conversations that you avoid.
Physically offended … exert yourself in ways that cause discomfort.
Spiritually offended … point out your own hypocrisies and learn to love yourself regardless.
This is what 2020 taught me. What happens when everything goes sideways? How prepared are we to get offended by what life throws at us? Who do we think we are? How do we respond?
Happy New Year everyone. Grateful that you still allow me in your inbox every week. Here’s to a transformative 2021.