Being offended a matter of choice

Published in Courier Mail 16 Dec 05

SO, you’re offended. Join the club. It seems just about everyone is these days.

The most recent is the situation reported this week where the principal of Yeppoon State School wrote a letter of apology to a family. They had complained about her use of the word Christmas in the end-of-year school newsletter. The family said they did not celebrate Christmas so they cried discrimination. In the letter of apology, the principal stated that “on reflection, I should have referred to the holiday season rather than the Christmas season”.

On reflection? Why would a principal feel that she had to apologise for calling something exactly what it is?

Perhaps because one of the worst things you can apparently now do in Western society is offend someone.

Causing offence is the new unforgivable sin. Western nations, in embracing relativism, have struggled with how to balance conflicting world views. In what is proving a flawed approach, we have usually chosen to simply remove that which may upset another person.

This approach comes into particular focus during the Christmas season, when the now predictable uproar occurs over nativity scenes and even Christmas itself. Granted, the political correctness police seem to often operate by double standards. After all, we don’t hear anyone complaining when the Brisbane City Council helps promote Buddha’s birthday at South Bank every year, yet the celebration of the birth of Christ is somehow seen as greatly more offensive.

So, in the interests of all of us getting along, I would like to put forward a proposition. I’d like to suggest we choose to no longer get offended.

Offence is a funny thing (no pun intended). It is entirely subjective, and we can decide whether we continue to subscribe to it or not. Feeling insulted is not an inevitable response to disagreement or even to being hurt. Offence is never forced upon us — it is something we decide to carry.

Ultimately, we choose whether or not to take offence or to overlook it. However, this isn’t the concept we ascribe to in civic life. By inextricably linking the notion of disagreement with insult, we have failed to teach our young people that it is possible to disagree with someone without being personally hurt.

The ability to have a difference of opinion, yet still retain a graciousness and generosity of spirit, is the hallmark of maturity.

Shahed Amanullah wrote in alt.muslim — a discussion and news website for the Muslim community — that “being offended all the time gets tiring, and it isn’t an example of people who are confident in the strength of their faith and community”.

The ability to resist offence has wide-ranging implications, for our families and for our society. Instead, much of our social commentary has schooled our society to assert their mythological right not to be offended and demand the elimination of what they don’t like.

This idea that much of mainstream Australia’s traditions and values must be silenced because they may offend someone else is abhorrent. It’s abhorrent not because of the danger this is to free speech but because of what it infers about our capacity as human beings.

It infers that we are merely slaves to our emotions, and that we lack the volitional ability to make choices about how we respond. Victor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but . . . the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances . . .”

It is wrong to take from us the opportunity to overlook offence, for it’s in choosing a good attitude in the midst of adversity that we grow and mature as individuals.

Each of us must choose for ourselves how we respond to possible offence. We can choose to get upset and throw a tantrum, or we can take a deep breath, extend forgiveness and acknowledge the freedom of others to express something we disagree with.

Of course, this doesn’t negate your corresponding freedom to debate opposing ideas, and vigorously contend for your views. This is, after all, a healthy sign of a free and democratic society.

So in this Christmas season, let’s reflect upon the opportunities we have every day to be upset by others. And then let’s start a revolution — and choose not to get offended.