There was an interesting discussion on line between my virtual friends this month as to whether or not taking offense was an automatic indication of insecurity. My take was, in some regards yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. It was partially with that discussion in mind that I was considering the negative side of community membership last time here, in terms of who we don’t want in our little groups and why. I mentioned that this issue could be a long discussion unto itself, and now I’m feeling game to start such a discussion.
Essentially the problem as I see it is this: each person has some basic value as a person, and every person who becomes part of my life in some way can in some way enrich me personally; yet in spite of that some people are more trouble than they’re worth to be with as friends, comrades and partners. There are some people whose company I find about as enjoyable as recreational oral surgery. Why is this so, really? What is it about such people that makes us want to avoid them? How do other people become a form of hell for us so often? What is it that we find so grating and/or offensive?
Let me start by giving some practical examples of people whom I don’t entirely get along with, or who don’t get along with each other so well, and then I’ll see if I can suggest a theoretical explanation, and perhaps even a means of reducing our stresses in this area once in a while.
Not too long ago commented here about my adventures accidentally cycling through the slums of Cape Town. In spite of the beauty I encountered while lost in Gugulethu this was a rather tense experience because I knew that it was an infamously high crime area. As the only white man within miles, wandering around on an old bicycle with my computer case over my shoulder, my odds of getting mugged, beaten or even killed there were actually pretty good. I actually have no phobias of such things based on ugly personal experiences, as many of my friends here have, but recognizing the risk to life and limb and property was enough to make me uncomfortable in such company under such circumstances. Thus stopping there for a cool drink and to ask directions at one of the primitive little cafés with the hand-painted signs outside didn’t seem like a reasonable option. I was the same sort of discomfort I felt when I discovered a scorpion in my stairwell a few months back.
Then there are people which I don’t distrust or resent, but which I don’t want to get too close to anyway, because of the risks their habits or lifestyles might cause for me. I want to avoid most forms of second-hand smoke. I want to avoid being involved in traffic accidents. I don’t want to be socially pressured to consume foods that will increase my genetic risk of heart disease. Thus while I don’t live in fear of smokers, wild drivers and junk food junkies I feel better taking a bit of precautionary distance from them for my own good. I can trust them not to attack me; I just don’t want to share all of the risks they take with their own well being.
These sorts of discomforts are an entirely different thing from the reasons why I have historically been considered to be a difficult person to live with though. My “sins” as a roommate have included general disorganization, an eccentric aesthetic when it comes to furniture and storage systems, occasional high volume with my voice, keeping rather irregular hours and not always participating in social rituals of hospitality in the standard fashion. I sort of get why over the years many people have not considered me to be the ideal person to share their space with, and in all honesty when I arrived in Cape Town I decided not to take a room in a shared apartment for similar reasons: the other residents’ styles would have grated for me. It wouldn’t have been a matter of safety or health concern; I just wouldn’t have felt comfortable having guests over or inspired to write stuff with such people around.
Then there are all of the classic social divisions which I don’t relate to so much personally, but which I see around me all the time, where people are most comfortable just being with “their own sort” –– whether that be defined in religious, racial, socio-economic, sub-cultural aesthetic or any other terms. People can have a certain primitive tribal instinct to gravitate towards their own “in group,” and they can start to feel a bit edgy when too many people who are too different get too close. For this reason they form various sorts of exclusive or semi-exclusive clubs, where new members are taken in by invitation only, or where right of admission is reserved. Racism, “classism” and religious intolerance are sub-categories of response to this sort of instinctual tendency, but it goes much further than that. Whether it can and/or should be completely eliminated is an open question. One thing that does bother me though is when people stereotype those who don’t fit into their chosen group as being bothersome in the ways mentioned above –– labeling those who aren’t “like us” as inherently dishonest, dangerous, smelly, messy and rude is in itself a crude and dishonest practice. If you’re going to be xenophobic it’s better not to make excuses for it.
But then there are situations where historical manifestations of various forms of exclusivism have led to gross abuses of the rights of the outsiders, and where emotional scars on both sides are hard to overcome. This is particularly obvious as I talk with people who are survivors of the Apartheid system here, especially those who were forcibly relocated out of newly designated “white areas” and those who were tortured by the security police for complaining a bit too loudly about the rife injustices that were going on. But wherever ruling powers have used hatemongering as a means of motivating one group of people to bond together to fight against the “evil” which another group represents, there will be deep scars to be dealt with thereafter. Examples of this phenomenon in the US within my lifetime have included hatemongering against communists, homosexuals, Muslims and Spanish-speaking immigrants; not to mention the on-going problems of old fashioned racism against Native Americans and African-Americans. If someone feels uncomfortable with those who have actively attacked their basic human value, they should hardly be condemned for that.
Looking back at all of these examples then, I am rather reinforced in my opinion that people are uncomfortable with or offended by others only when they feel insecure about something, or they sense they are at risk of losing something important because of those others. This does not necessarily mean that the person who takes offence or feels the discomfort is to blame for their reaction; it just means that whether they recognize it or not, their reaction demonstrates their vulnerability. Let me go back and try to explain this in terms of my trusty old 5C theory of happiness.
Quite often the area of vulnerability one exposes in taking offense is in terms of comparison: you get this feeling like they might take away some of the prestige you’ve built up for yourself over the years –– things you have or things about you which prove that you’re just a little bit ahead of the next guy. Or alternately in trying to prove that they are just that little bit ahead of you they might make you feel like you’re not quite as good or important as they are. To me, when people are bothered by these sorts of threats and have emotional reactions against their perceived competitors, that shows insecurity in the most classic sense of the word. Of course comparisons and competition are a continuous undercurrent of life as we know it, but the stronger, happier and more mature a person is, the more he learns to live beyond just comparing himself with the next guy as the basis of his fulfillment in life.
Another area of vulnerability we might be experiencing is in terms of our physical comfort and well-being. If I am a potential victim of a beating or robbery, or if I am at risk of having a heart attack, of course I will want to avoid those things however possible. For those who have lived through the sort of poverty which causes not only hunger but malnutrition, and for those who have been through experiences of bona fide torture, it stands to reason that the sense of vulnerability in terms of their bodily comfort would be much greater. Overall though, when someone is offended by another person, or generally feels uncomfortable with that person, if we’re honest about it concern for physical well-being is rarely the leading factor.
Perhaps the greatest source of offense comes when there is an open question of who is in control of the situation. Power struggles of various sorts are a tremendously fertile ground for growing hard feelings. If I am no longer able to choose my own destiny –– if I am no longer free to decide how I go about my business –– of course I will feel threatened and react negatively. And on the other extreme if the meaning of someone’s life is determined by that person being able to make other people do what he wants them to, anything that keeps him from having the sort of influence he wants to have will tend to upset him. Yet when a person feels secure in the amount of freedom he has and does not consider himself entitled to more influence than what he routinely exercises, this isn’t really a sensitive matter.
Continuing on, there are certainly things that we find offensive because they damage our sense of confidence as well. If someone were to assert that the work I have done is essentially trivial and meaningless, and that I have had no positive influence on the world I live in, and if their attack in that respect was really worth taking seriously, of course I would take offense. If someone were to assert that the basic values that I have based my life on are nothing but fantasies and mythological illusions, there too, if the attack deserved to be taken seriously, I could find it offensive. This is why religion can be such a dangerous thing to talk about, especially with those whose faith is based on a sort of blind trust that doesn’t stand up well to criticism, and who have based their whole life on what they believe in turning out to be true. The same can also apply to challenging those who are very emotionally committed to their questionable political persuasions (and when it comes down to it, all political persuasions can be rather questionable at times). But if I can see where the individuals who challenge the principles I hold dear are mistaken –– or if it is obvious to me that they are emotionally unbalanced and/or intellectually incapable of understanding the question –– there’s really nothing for me to worry about and thus there’s no point in my taking offense. If I feel secure about such matters I simply won’t be offended by critics.
Then finally we come to the matter of connection. And here I must confess that the people in the world who I personally find most offensive –– most evil –– are those who have intentionally disrupted my relationships with those that I love; with my sons in particular. As secure as I might try to be in these relationships, I know that all interpersonal bonds between human beings are fragile things. Those who spitefully or callously destroy friendships, romantic relationships, parent/child bonds or even close professional collaborations are in my opinion the worst form of scum in the universe. But all I can do to defend myself against such evil people is to build my personal relationships with others as strongly as I know how. Jealous rage at perceived threats to my most important relationships accomplishes nothing of value. Hyper-protective sheltering of the loved one is more often than not counter-productive. But if I make it clear to the ones I love that their happiness is part of my own happiness, if I can assure them that they will not cease to be important to me in some very fundamental ways and if they are capable enough of feeling the same so that the bond between us functions strongly in both directions, with a little help from higher powers some of these relationships will survive. Some day perhaps I will feel a bit more secure about such matters, and thus less likely to take offense at the ways in which my connections with significant others have come under attack. Meanwhile I can only pray that when I love I will be somewhat loved in return, and that there really is justice in the universe in the form of a hell for those who have fought to keep me from connecting with those I love.
The issue of why we find it offensive to have things stolen from us perhaps falls in between these concerns somewhere. If I lose a camera or a laptop computer or some other item of significant value for a man on my budget, obviously it means that I have not succeeded in controlling my circumstances very well, and so it is an insult to my level of control. If I have to work extra hard to earn enough money to replace it that can also take away some of my freedom. Beyond that it can make me feel like more of a loser in the sense that it can eliminate one of my significant status symbols or it can make me feel that I’m not able to keep the same nice things that other people have. And if enough is stolen from me I can lose the possibility of using my resources to get greater physical comfort –– in terms of quality clothing, protection from the elements as I travel, the sorts of food I might crave and perhaps even adequate medical care. It might also threaten my confidence in the sense that it shows how some people don’t take what I consider to be common rules of decency seriously, and it might damage my sense of connection with others in terms of making it harder for me to trust people around me. Taking offense at theft then can be a complicated matter, with the only clear thing being that if it bothers me –– which most of the time it would –– that shows that the thief has succeeded in detracting from my happiness and security in some important ways.
If, however, we’re talking about the sort of situation where I happen to leave a can of soft drink on a picnic table as I go off to attend to business elsewhere, and I return to find that someone has made off with it, I’m unlikely to do more than shrug my shoulders and forget about it. The taste experience and the principle of the matter are not important enough to me to raise my adrenaline levels in such a case in the slightest. An individual random soft drink thief is not capable of making me feel threatened, and so I don’t bother to take offence at his selfish action.
Overall life is full of uncertainties, and it is when someone succeeds in pushing our buttons and making us feel uncertain and insecure that we reach the state of taking offense. Being absolutely in control of our lives and having absolutely no vulnerable points would theoretically keep us from ever being offended, but it would hardly be worth it. It has been said that the person who has everything under control does not have big enough dreams. As long as we have something in our lives worth fighting for we will not have everything under control. What me must hope for then is not to go beyond a state of vulnerability, but to become personally and spiritually strong enough so that we don’t inadvertently take offence at people’s careless stupidity and so –– with the help of our friends –– we are able to withstand the attacks of those who offend us on purpose.
Or at least that’s what I want. If you want something different for your life I hope you are secure enough not to have found this essay offensive.