Much has been said in recent years about the growing prevalence of people taking offence and the growing number of things that offend them. In addition, the consequences for someone deemed to have given offence are much worse than they used to be. Thirty years ago if someone had said or written something offensive there would have been a kind of collective ‘tut tut’ of disapproval, but they didn’t lose their jobs. If they were in showbiz or politics they might have been condemned by newspaper columnists, their TV ratings or record sales may have gone down, but that would have been it. Now people can be summarily sacked, authors dropped by their publishers and actors abandoned by their agents. This even when the supposed offence was perpetrated many years ago, perhaps when they were teenagers. Nor does apologising save them from their fate. In most cases the supposed offender gives an ‘unreserved’ (some say ‘abject’ or ‘grovelling’) apology, but it’s of no use; they are not forgiven.
Of particular concern is that the taking of offence is often the criterion used to judge whether something is offensive. It doesn’t always follow that if someone is offended, then what was said or written must therefore be offensive. Often someone is deemed to have given offence when all they’ve done is state their honest opinion, with no intent to offend. But for some, merely expressing certain opinions is considered in itself to be offensive. I sometimes wonder though whether those who take offence in this way really are offended, or whether they think they should be, and so are. Worse, perhaps some are not offended at all, but are using offence-taking as a weapon with which to silence their opponents. And silenced they often are.
But why do people apologise when they haven’t actually said anything offensive? I can think of three reasons. Some are desperately trying to save their careers. For others it’s because they can’t tolerate being vilified. And for others it’s because they are soft-hearted, and are horrified to hear that someone is offended by what they’ve said or written.
To give offence is to try to harm a person by vilifying, defaming, disparaging, or impugning their character. The person thus vilified etc. can say that they were offended, or that they took offence. The former idiom is passive – offence is something that happens to them; while the latter phrase suggests that taking offence is active, something that they do. This suggests that taking offence is a choice: we don’t have to take offence when someone is offensive.
There is a good example in the ancient texts of the Buddha refusing to take offence when it was given. The offender was a Brahmin called Bharadvāja, who was angry with the Buddha because a fellow Brahmin had recently converted to Buddhism, and as a result he proceeded to subject the Buddha to a stream of invective. In response the Buddha asked him some questions: Do his friends, colleagues and relatives sometimes visit him? They do. Does he offer them food and refreshments? Yes he does. And if they don’t accept the food he offers, to whom does it then belong? Bharadvāja answers that it still belongs to him. The Buddha then says that, similarly, he doesn’t accept the abuse that Bharadvāja has tried to give, so it still belongs to him.1
I freely admit that over the last few years I have taken offence and expressed my displeasure at some things that have been said to and about me in blog pages I’ve contributed to. The result in each instance was that a few days later I felt rather foolish. My ‘dignity’ had been knocked, but my reactions themselves were, I later felt, undignified, and I came to the conclusion that it would have been better had I not taken offence. For what use was it to do so? What did it achieve? Nothing really, apart from perhaps making me appear to be rather petulant. (I had no intention of trying to silence my detractors).
More recently I decided not to take offence if offence was given, and I discovered that it was actually quite easy. It was as if I’d simply stepped out of a room – a room that was too small perhaps. It’s not that, to change the metaphor, I grew a ‘thicker skin’; no, I wasn’t bothered at all because the offensive comments just didn’t apply to me. More than that, I discovered that not taking the offence proffered to me gave rise to a sense of freedom – from self-clinging, egotism, from a sense of my own (no doubt inflated) importance.
But the taking of offence that is so common in our present moment is not always an emotional reaction to the disparagement of one’s own character. Often it is taken on behalf of a group or tribe, whether one’s own or to another with which one has sympathy. In such cases the ostensible offending remark gives rise not to simple anger on one’s own behalf but to righteous indignation. Righteous indignation has been defined as anger and disgust towards someone perceived to be morally reprehensible, and is considered by many Christians to be the only form of anger that is not sinful. It has also been defined (outside of its Christian context) as anger driven by contempt, and this seems to be true in many cases: because someone is perceived to be immoral they are contemptible, so it’s right to treat them disrespectfully (read despicably) and justifiable to try to ruin their careers and even lives.
Righteous indignation was a concept foreign to the Buddha. One day he was walking with a large number of his bhikkhu disciples, followed close behind by two wanderers from a different tradition. The pair spent the whole time arguing about the Buddha, his teaching, and his community of disciples (sangha) – one abusing, the other defending them. The next day the Buddha, aware that some of his disciples had overheard the argument, told them how they should ideally respond to both criticism and praise. If anyone disparages him, his teaching, or his spiritual community, they are not to feel angry, resentful or upset, because that would be a hindrance to their spiritual progress. And if they were to feel angry or upset, it would render them unable to recognise whether or not there was any truth in the criticism. Instead, they should simply point out anything that the critic said that was incorrect. Likewise, if anyone praises the Buddha, his teaching, or his spiritual community, they shouldn’t feel pleased, happy, or elated by that, because that too would be a hindrance to them. Instead they should simply acknowledge any praise that is justified.2
The Buddha was here encouraging his disciples to cultivate upeksha, which is a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by what he called the ‘eight worldly winds’: gain and loss, fame and infamy (or good and bad repute), praise and blame, pleasure and pain. But
upeksha is not merely a cool, unemotional appraisal of a criticism, but is a deeply positive emotion, which includes loving kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy. So we could say it’s the opposite of righteous indignation. One way of maintaining upeksha in the face of unjust criticism and abuse is to reflect on the conditioned nature of the critic: there are numerous conditions that have contributed to their behaviour, and they are simply acting in ways that you might well act if you had been subject to the same conditions. So when someone is offensive, in a way it’s not their fault: they are just doing something that anyone with their conditioning would probably do. I’m not suggesting that they are the innocent victims, as it were, of their conditioning, over which they have no control. Indeed, it’s a fundamental principle of Buddhism that we can change and transcend our conditioning. But it’s hard to do that, and anyway people are usually unaware that their behaviour is largely conditioned. It’s in this sense that I mean that someone’s offensive behaviour is ‘not their fault’.
Reflecting in this way allows us to step back a little, to be patient and not take the offence personally. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t point out that they are being offensive. It means not allowing yourself to be hurt and upset when you don’t need to be. That would be better for the conversation or debate too. If others see that you’re refusing to descend into personal animosity, and instead are continuing to calmly and reasonably state your opinion, they may do likewise.