Everyone’s offended today. Social media is red hot with rage over perceived slights. Culture wars show no signs of subsiding. The Overton window is narrowing. Sacred cows are being slaughtered, left and right.
This is happening for two reasons. The cultural moment, especially among young people, has normalised taking offence as a response to disagreement. And the Establishment are generating offence to preserve the status quo.
What does it mean for us as activist citizens? And what can we do about it?
An attack on your self-identity
Being offended is a peculiar human emotion. Psychologists define it as:
a feeling triggered by a blow to a person’s honour because it contradicts a person’s self-concept and identity
I.e., it challenges your deepest-held convictions — what you believe about yourself. Or, put simply:
According to a study by Roma Tre University, if the offender is someone you respect, it stings more. If you have a relationship with them, even more. And if your self-esteem is low, yet more.
Sometimes feeling offended is justified. Everyone has soft spots that others can push, accidentally or not. If someone comments on my losing my hair, or being out of shape in my middle age, I won't be thrilled.
And we should always stand up to intolerance and bigotry, and call them out. As part of a wider strategy of tackling them.
But as I put forward below, offence – or more accurately, what feeling offended makes us do – almost always works against us. As activist citizens. As team-mates. As humans.
Safetyism and the public shaming cycle
Much of the offence-taking on social media today looks like this:
X believes that Y has committed an ethical violation. X claims to feel offended.1 They see Y as bigoted or dangerous. They vocally complain, and others gather in support.
A loose campaign begins. The remedy called for by X & Co is usually an apology from Y. But whether or not Y apologises, that's rarely the end of it. The 'offended' behaviour of X & Co typically escalates, until drastic consequences result for Y. As per the cycle of public-shaming:
The effect of this cycle is an increasing number of attempts to disinvite speakers from college campuses, deplatform independent podcast hosts, or censor views outright. And, in extreme cases, to cause reputational and professional ruin. It's happening more often, and it's getting more successful.
Why? According to the sociologist Jonathan Haidt, ‘paranoid parenting’ has created a fragile generation, steeped in the culture of what he calls 'safetyism'. It started with Gen Z — those born between 1995 and 2012 — and it’s bleeding up to older groups.
In a culture of safetyism, you should always trust your feelings, and must protect them at all costs. So when someone is offended, it’s as if a violence has been done to them. Others rally to the 'victim', and the feeling is quick to spread. Being offended accords you special rights among your peers.
A cascade of indignation
If someone tried to take control of your body and make you a slave, you would fight for freedom. Yet how easily you hand over your mind to anyone who insults you. When you dwell on their words and let them dominate your thoughts, you make them your master.
Offence is kryptonite for activist citizens. When you're offended, you’re in purely reactive mode. You flail, shooting in all directions, hungry for redress. It takes your attention away from whatever your goal was.
Being offended also has a cascading effect that is psychologically damaging. First you’re angry. Soon, you’re angry for being angry, and having allowed it to consume your day. And it only grows from there. You'll have a shitty time, and worse – you miss the chance to learn, to understand your opponents. To become a better activist citizen.
But the most pernicious thing about offence is that if you’re easily offended, you’re easily manipulated. Because others can make you act in a way you hadn't planned.
And nobody knows this better than the Establishment.
The Establishment's secret weapon
In recent years, the Establishment has got in on the 'offended' game in a big way.
The Fabian Society is Britain's oldest political think-tank. In a detailed report last year, they found evidence that the Establishment stoke culture wars to serve their goals. It started in the US, it's arrived in Britain, and soon it will be everywhere.
Here's how it works. The Establishment shouts about, or amplifies, an ethical violation that Y (the offender) has apparently committed, packaged in the most explosive way possible. The goal is to make X (the offended) see Y as bigoted or dangerous. And to kick off a public shaming campaign as described above.
From the report:
One illustrative example [is] the recurring story that the film Grease faces being ‘cancelled’. The root of these stories is a handful of tweets, many made in jest, making uncontroversial points about the ways in which the 1978 script is dated. This has been the flimsy basis for a wide variety of outlets profiling this ‘controversy’, including the Daily Mail, Good Morning Britain, the Metro and Pink News. While these individual stories may seem harmless, they add up to the impression – inadvertent or otherwise – that movements like #MeToo are obsessed with trivia about musicals instead of, in reality, existing to counter violence against women.
Trying to make you take offence is smart strategy from the Establishment. You've got to hand it to them. It allows:
- politicians to caricature their enemies (the offended), and hold their voting bases together
- commentators to get more engagement, by benefitting from the controversy
- media and social media platforms to gain financial profit, by clicks and coverage from the outrage
But worse, by generating offence strategically, the Establishment makes activist citizens divided and toothless. They keep you trained on the outrage of the moment, unable to see your projects through.
So instead of opposing the Establishment where it might make a difference, precious activist energy gets diverted towards fringe issues and symbolic goals. Out with campaigns on income inequality or global warming or poverty or institutional transparency. In with fighting over whether footballers should take the knee, and which controversial statues should remain standing. While activist citizens are tearing chunks out of each other to get cultural wins, the status quo is preserved.
And often, the 'offender' that the Establishment put forward in these manufactured controversies is a party that same Establishment would love to take down. Whether it's Wikileaks, independent podcasters or heterodox doctors.
As a result of this strategy, activist citizens who would typically oppose the Establishment end up doing the Establishment's work for them. While being defamed as out of touch with the concerns of common people. What evil genius!
Again: if you’re easily offended, you’re easily manipulated.
How can we avoid being played? And how can we play them back?
Your defense and retaliation
Not being offended is a superpower. Cultivate it, and you can avoid your opponents leading you by the nose.
It’s easier said than done, of course. Everyone's different, and whether you're easily offended depends on your history, your hidden weaknesses, your self-esteem.
Thoughts are the fuel of emotions, and meditation puts space between you and those thoughts. [..] Once you identify the thoughts that produce the emotion, both lose their grip on you. And so you can bring your attention back to your Ultimate Goal.
Building a meditation practice will help you identify when the emotion of feeling offended is arising within you. And it will give you the space to pull back and re-assess. Start with Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, and 10 minutes every morning.
Also, if you're building an activist team, keep an eye out for people who are quick to take offence. Trust me, you don't want them on it. You need activists who can move past conflict easily, and keep their eye on the goal.
Lastly, don't forget you're in an asymmetric battle against power. You can and should use the tools of the enemy against them.
So whatever you're campaigning on, seek to offend the Establishment. Make it personal: target the individual responsible, instead of an institution or system. Get a rise out of them and shout about it.
Challenge their deeply-held beliefs. Force them to flail and make tactical mistakes. Beat them at their own game.
1: This isn't technically offence, by the psychology definition. It's more like X believing that Y has bigoted views, and feeling angry or disgusted at them. But for our purposes here, let's call it offence.