• Justin McBrayer

Against Offense

Updated: Nov 19

A surprising amount of space on social media and the daily news cycle concerns offense. Many of us are quick to point out when we are offended by this, that, or the other. Liberals are offended by MAGA hats, conservatives are offended by kneeling athletes, and a man in Islamic dress is offended by a barista’s spelling of his name. As the recent NYT kerfuffle shows, the land of Twitter is particularly fertile, with thousands of Tweets each day whose sole subject is the offense we take at the antics of celebrities or the decisions of politicians. They are so common that there’s now a hashtag mocking these sorts of Tweets: #offended.

If you’re anywhere near typical, you get offended about things, too. On any given day, you’ll be offended by what a co-worker says (or what you take her to be implying), offended by what a family member posts on Facebook, and offended at what you read in the news or watch on TV. You may have the good sense not to post your offense online, but it’s there nonetheless.

This isn’t a good thing. Being offended is not a good indicator that someone else has done something wrong. Maybe they have, and maybe they haven’t. But it’s a reliable indicator that there’s something wrong with you. When something offends you, that’s good evidence you have a problem. And every time you post about your offense online, that’s a flashing, neon sign letting the world know that you have a serious character flaw. Far from being proud of your offense, you should be embarrassed by it.

It’s not fashionable nowadays to talk about virtues and vices, but that’s what the offense problem is really all about. While philosophical framing of the moral life in terms of virtues and vices made something of a renaissance in the late 20th century, that work hasn’t affected the way many of us think about the moral landscape. Talk of virtues and vices sometimes can sound positively Medieval. But it need not.

A virtue is a character trait of excellence. To have a virtue means that you are deeply disposed to feel, respond, or act in ways that are morally useful. Virtues include things like honesty, loyalty, and charity. A vice, of course, is the opposite. To have a vice means that—deep down—you are naturally disposed to feel, respond, or act in ways that are problematic in some moral way. Vices are things like greed, cowardice, or vanity. In both cases, virtues and vices are character traits that shape our lives.

Using this terminology, my claim is that a tendency to take offense is a vice. This vice doesn’t have a name in English, but we might call it emotional fragility. Like all vices, emotional fragility comes in degrees: just as you can be more or less cowardly, you can be more or less emotionally fragile.

If you’re not convinced that your reaction to something could be a vice, consider a couple of more extreme cases. Suppose that you naturally find your children repugnant and that you have to literally swallow your disgust in order to interact with them in a normal way. That would be a vice. Or suppose that encountering someone of a different race you were gripped with a fear that nearly paralyzes you. Again, that’s morally problematic. Finally, suppose you laughed every time someone around you got seriously hurt. In each of these cases, your natural reactions to these situations indicate that something is wrong with you.

Of course, none of these intuitive situations explains why emotional fragility is a vice. That’s harder to say. But here are at least three plausible explanations. First, a disposition to respond to people and situations with offense undermines your autonomy. Your emotional well-being is too dependent on what others around you are doing. Others shouldn’t have that much power over us. Second, responding to others with offense belies a certain kind of narcissism. Instead of focusing on the world or the people in it, you too strongly focus on your own reactions and emotions as having central importance. Third, displaying offense is a signal of a kind of epistemic hubris. Offense signals that you are right, others are wrong, and there’s nothing left to discuss. We don’t talk with those who offend us. Given these three points, we’re more likely to lead successful, happy lives without a fragile offense-meter.

Despite what I’ve said here, you might be tempted to defend emotional fragility as a kind of virtue. After all, responding to the evils in our world with offense and disgust is surely a valuable character trait. What better response could you have to something like overt racism? Even someone as meek as Jesus had righteous anger when he encountered the money changers in the temple!

The righteous anger objection is a red herring for two reasons. First, there’s a difference between anger and offense. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t notice injustice or be angry about it. Second, while it’s a virtue to be able to identify and respond to wrongdoing in the world, by definition “taking offense” is an overreaction to perceived injustice. It’s the overreaction part that makes it a vice. If anything, offense is likely to mask details of a situation that may prove to be morally relevant. Think of any moral paragon you like: Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Barack Obama, whoever. That person’s character would not be improved by being more easily offended. The same goes for us.

Suppose you find this missive convincing. You agree that emotional fragility is a vice. How can you do better? Aristotle provides some advice in his classic work on ethics. Virtues, he says, are moderate character traits positioned between two vices at each end of a continuum. For example, courage is the virtue located somewhere between the vice of cowardice and the vice of recklessness. If you discover that you are a coward, you should begin to alter your behavior in ways that feel reckless to you. In other words, you should aim for the opposing extreme as a strategy to land in the middle.

When it comes to emotional fragility, this means that in scenarios in which you are offended, you should respond in ways that feel callous or overly calm and calculated to you. In cases like that, we should step back from our feelings of offense and analyze the situation dispassionately. Students, this means that when an idea in class offends you that you should swallow that feeling and think hard about the issue at hand. Employees, this means that when a coworker does something that offends you that you should look past your feelings and think about the interaction from the point of view of a third party. And voters, that means you should spend less time on social media pointing out how others have offended you (or your group or your party or whatever), and more time thinking carefully about issues of substance.

I grant, of course, that none of this is easy. But it’s worth doing. And I won’t be offended if you disagree.


© 2020 by Anna McBrayer