Although this had never occurred to be before today, I now believe that there is something deeply beautiful in the human capacity to feel offended.
I’ve spent far, far too many hours debating politics online. Along the way I’ve been offended quite a few times, and I dare say I’ve dished out more than I’ve taken. Back in the day I took a confrontational approach to debating controversial issues, and I had a couple of theories–long since abandoned–to rationalize what I was doing.
The first was a notion that adversarial conflict was a great revelator of truth. I probably picked this up from a monologue in a Law & Order rerun, and it has a certain adolescent appeal. I will forge my ideas in the heat and blunt force trauma of violent, logical confrontation! The Highlander: Political Debate Edition! This metaphor–which I may have actually used–dates back to my high school days before I saw my first online message board, and I’d like to think it wasn’t as patently absurd then as it is to someone who has spent a few minutes arguing on Facebook.
The second was a notion that debate is a spectator sport. Of course I’m not going to change my opponent’s mind, but there are lots of people watching silently from the outside of the ring, as it were, and if I completely obliterate my opponent then I will strengthen the wavering folks on my side and sow doubt and confusion among the opposing forces. Of course that’s totally absurd, because spectators–just like combatants–tend to see exactly what they want to see out of an argument, but over the years I got enough encouraging notes from the lurkers that for a lot time I foolishly believed there was a good reason for the hundreds of thousands of words (literally) that I spent talking about politics, religion, and morality.
And there is at least some truth to both of these ideas. What’s more, some of my best friendships were made during these years, including with folks who were my opponents. But there’s only a small amount of truth to these ideas. First and foremost, they were just rationalization for crazy behavior.
I realized this most poignantly when I made a perfectly nice friend-of-a-friend cry at a dinner we’d (my wife and I) been invited to. In my defense, I wasn’t trying to be mean, she didn’t actually break down right in front of me, I felt truly terrible about it, and I sent a very sincere apology letter to her and her husband the next day. Still, the main thing I learned from that experience was that regardless of the argument, reducing your “opponent” to tears felt nothing like victory.
This wasn’t the first time I’d made someone cry in a debate, either, although it was the first time it had happened in person. There were at least two others that I knew of, and I wasn’t proud of those either. Still, I had this hyper-rational conception of what debate was that made it seem like a sad but unavoidable side-effect of the rough-and-tumble search for truth. “Collateral damage” and all that.
From a certain perspective, if you think a person is bluntly wrong and you don’t bluntly say it, you are disrespecting them as a rational creature. Insult, after all, is all about intent, right? If I wanted to hurt someone (which I didn’t), and I said unkind things it would be silly of them to feel hurt. Why capitulate to aggression when you don’t have to? And if I didn’t want to hurt someone, and said something that at first seemed hurtful, well it ought to be taken as just another datum. It was true or it was false, but in either case it the worst you could say was that I was the bearer of bad news. Don’t shoot the messenger, right?
So, I reasonably concluded, in a perfectly rational world there should be no such thing as offense. Being offended is totally irrational. Furthermore, refraining from saying negative things about a person would be the real insult because it would show I didn’t think that they could handle it. Nice, right? I have not only permission but a responsibility to be a jerk.
Now the thing I’ve learned is that when I’m most wrong it’s not because I got a fact wrong or made an error in logic. It’s because my perspective prevented me from seeing the things that really mattered the most. In this case, I was seeing people only as rational agents when, of course, a human being is a rational agent and then so much more as well. And yet, though I renounced this kind of hurtful debate (as best as I could, I’m still no angel) years ago, it was only driving up to my parents today that I finally realized one of the big things I had been missing all along.
This is what occurred to me: First, that anger is generally a sign of being hurt. For someone’s words to cause us pain, we have to give them credibility. We have to participate in being offended and–since it’s not a pleasant experience–why would we do such a thing? If it’s a friend or a loved one, you could say that the capacity to be offended is just a byproduct of emotional intimacy. And yet the capacity to be offended by relative strangers online, to cry as I’ve made a couple of folks cry, shows that we have rendered ourselves vulnerable to one another. In short: we care. Even about semi-anonymous jerks on the internet.
In fact, we care even when we wish we didn’t. Even though our reaction may be unpleasant and angry, our capacity to be offended by our enemies bears witness that we have given them some measure of access to our heart. I find in that first a sense of renewed guilt for the people I’ve offended, but in addition I can’t help but find a sublime evidence that we all wish to be loved even by our enemies. That we recognize at some level we have forgotten since childhood that we need have no enemies. Being offended is a sad kind of cooperation, but it is a kind of cooperation nonetheless, and it reveals just how highly we esteem even our adversaries. Even in the lowest and meanest of online bickering there is evidence of the human drive to socialize, to empathize, and to care. After all, we cared enough to be offended.
And that, I think, really is beautiful.