Some think that the tendency to take offence is a “snowflake” generation thing, a sign of oversensitivity and a habit to grow out of. But instead of dismissing offence as the hurt feelings of the thin skined, we should take its main effect seriously: the undermining a person’s social standing. Taking offence then at behaviours that disrespect us is a small act of resistance, a signal to others of one’s social worth, argues Emily McTernan.
Many dismiss taking offence as merely a matter of having one’s feelings hurt. An inclination to take offence is regarded as an affliction of the supposedly oversensitive ‘snowflake’ generation. Some even suggest there is a growing ‘culture of taking offence’ over what seem small details of our social interactions, like flirtatious remarks. But these are all mistakes. There is nothing new about taking offence and nor does it simply indicate hurt feelings. Instead, to take offence is a way to defend against small and subtle attempts to undermine one’s social standing. Such resistance can, sometimes, be a good thing.
Re-characterising offence: Social standing, not feelings
Taking offence is a more commonplace and widespread emotion than it is sometimes depicted as being in public debate. Rather than being restricted to the ‘snowflake’ generation, most of us feel offence some of the time, in all sorts of everyday interactions. You might take offence when, say, someone bumps into you in the pub and spills your drink without apologising, or someone pushes in front of you in a queue. Or suppose that a colleague keeps forgetting or mispronouncing your name, even though you’ve told them it repeatedly, or that your partner makes rude remarks about your cooking in front of guests. Or you might take offence when someone tells a sexist joke or cat calls you on the street.
You are offended when you perceive an affront to your sense of your social standing: when you think that another’s gesture is lacking in the consideration or respect that you think that others owe to you.
What provokes offence, then, is someone acting in a way that is inconsiderate, disrespectful, inappropriate, or in some way puts you down. You are offended when you perceive an affront to your sense of your social standing: when you think that another’s gesture is lacking in the consideration or respect that you think that others owe to you. After all, if I accepted that you ought to treat me disrespectfully, or with a lack of ordinary consideration, I’d not be offended by your doing so. And when we take offence, our feelings need not be hurt. Indeed, sometimes it can even feel pleasant to take offence, especially when others agree with us that the offending party has acted improperly. Rather, when we take offence, we are rejecting the other’s slight to our social standing.
And by taking offence, we also signal to both the offending party and others that we won’t just accept being treated like that. When we are offended, we feel estranged from the person who has offended us, and inclined to withdraw from them, even if only momentarily. Offended, I might raise an eyebrow, I might not laugh at your joke, or I might leave an awkward pause in our conversation. Or I might, if my offence is serious, refuse to be near you at future events or break off our relations altogether. To feel you have offended someone is often unpleasant, and these kinds of withdrawal can be socially costly. Even small acts like pointedly not laughing at your joke can make an interaction awkward and ensure that others will see that you have mis-stepped.
In taking offence, we weigh our standing anew, in the light of another’s threat to our sense of how we ought to be treated.
One interesting thing about offence is that it is an unusual kind of emotion, sitting between the standard divide between other-regarding and self-regarding emotions. Offence, being marked by our estrangement from the offending party and negative assessment of their behaviour, is an other-condemning emotion like contempt, although often it is more momentary. But it is also, at the same time, a self-conscious emotion like pride, shame, and guilt. In taking offence, we weigh our standing anew, in the light of another’s threat to our sense of how we ought to be treated. When someone affronts us, often we reconsider how we are regarded in certain contexts or, at least, by that person. But, in taking offence, we resist, instead of accepting, their attribution of lower social standing.
Do sweat the small stuff
Taking offence is by no means confined to university campuses, or to those who are on the political left. With a better understanding of what it is to take offence in view, that makes sense. As social creatures, concerned with how others see and regard us, we are all inclined, sometimes, to take offence. We are attuned to the everyday details that reveal how others think of us, from their greetings and jokes, to where they touch us. Of course, some people care too much: think of someone who is hypersensitive to threats to her standing, to the point of imagining slights were there are none to be found. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care at all.
Perhaps it would be better to simply ignore slights, to grow a ‘thicker skin’, and not be so bothered by what others think of us and how they treat us. Most of us may be prone to take offence, but perhaps we should learn not to be.
But even if offence is a familiar and widespread emotion, and even if it is about caring about how others treat and regard us in our social interactions, why think that it is a good thing? Perhaps it would be better to simply ignore slights, to grow a ‘thicker skin’, and not be so bothered by what others think of us and how they treat us. Most of us may be prone to take offence, but perhaps we should learn not to be.
However, how others treat and regard us it is not irrelevant. Our standing within society is partly made up out of the pattern of our social interactions. If some are systematically treated with less respect and consideration than others, say because of their race, gender, class or sexuality, that should trouble us, even when that lack of equal respect and consideration are manifested in the small details of social interactions. Such details contribute to the pervasive and unified nature of these social hierarchies, to the way they can shape one’s social standing across a life.
To take offence signals to the offending party and to others that this isn’t the right way to act, and so it resists the attribution of lower social standing.
Taking offence can be one way to resist the ordinary patterning of our relations in socially unequal ways, when taken by those who are subjected to such hierarchies. To take offence signals to the offending party and to others that this isn’t the right way to act, and so it resists the attribution of lower social standing. People may well be wary of risking the associated costs of causing offence in future. But even where others reject the signal that they have offended someone, and even when they deliberately misread it by calling those who take offence oversensitive, still to take offence can be a form of resistance. At the least, the person taking offence attributes to herself more standing than others treat her as if she has, and so she resists another’s lowering of her standing. Taking offence, then, can be an act of direct insubordination against a social hierarchy – a good thing.