The era of offense seems to have reached a fevered pitch.
Perhaps you’ve felt it, too — that sense that you can’t say anything without offending someone: old people, young people, people of faith, people without faith, minorities, women, men, Northerners, left-handers, non-athletes, people who drive Subarus or wear white after Labor Day.
You get the idea.
It seems the entire country is on alert, looking to be offended at every turn.
Political correctness was the buzzword of the ’90s and early 2000s. But this more recent trend goes beyond political correctness into what a recent article in The Atlantic — “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt — calls “microaggressions.”
The term microaggressions grew out of the 1970s to mean unconscious racial affronts. Recently, the term has ballooned to encompass any seeming offense, and nowhere is it being felt more than on college campuses.
Traditionally places of free speech and liberal ideals, universities have become coddled spaces where nothing shocking or outside the norm can be said or discussed. This summer, a professor, writing under a fake name to protect his identity, wrote an article titled, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.”
Professors have been called out for assigning “threatening” literature to their students in everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” to Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Students are demanding that professors issue “trigger warnings” on content that might offend or cause trauma. And they are turning against other students who, often inadvertently, say or do anything that might be considered offensive.
As Lukianoff and Haidt write, “Attempting to shield students from words, ideas and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students … (and) they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.”
In a nation founded on free speech, this climate should ring alarm bells for all of us. It creates an environment where we’re all walking on eggshells, afraid to speak or voice an opinion for fear of retribution.
Because, indeed, the retribution is real, and it extends far beyond college campuses, from movie directors who have shuttered their Twitter accounts because of death threats to everyday people who have been victims of trolling and online bullying. The grand irony in all of this is that the very people who demand tolerance for themselves often become the most intolerant and even vitriolic at seeking revenge when they feel wronged by another’s free speech.
In the 1970s, political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann developed a theory called the Spiral of Silence. It states that people tend to remain silent when they feel their opinion is in opposition to the majority.
Afraid of being ostracized, the group in the perceived minority stays quiet. As they self-regulate their own speech into continued silence, the idea is reinforced that they truly are the minority, creating a downward spiral.
The theory has its flaws, but as I’ve watched these latest aggressions unfold, I can’t help but think that we’re creating an atmosphere where we’re all muted out of fear of retribution. The more we tolerate this intolerance, the more we give power to the movement.
Not only is this trend bad for democracy, it’s terrible for our own mental well-being. We may stay silent out of risk of offending someone who has been traumatized or has anxiety about a certain topic.
However, as The Atlantic article points out, avoiding offense is the worst way, mentally, for us to overcome anxiety. If you get kicked off a horse, you don’t throw away your plastic horse figurines and avoid horses for the rest of your life. You climb back on and start riding. The same goes for offense. Exposure therapy is one of the most effective ways to work through trauma or anxiety and move back toward normalcy.
When we silence offenders, whether intentionally or not, we perpetuate the belief that our fragile selves can’t take anything but lollipops and roses. That’s the message we send on college campuses, on social media and all the way down to our living rooms and elementary schools.
What seems to be missing today is the old-fashioned parlor-room debate, when people of differing opinions and backgrounds gathered to hash out their ideas, shout their frustrations, then shake hands and part as equals — bitter rivals comfortable in their differences. There was room for disagreement, and even offense, at the table of ideas.
Re-creating that type of culture starts in our homes, at our kitchen tables and in our communities and congregations. None of us wants a sterile world where we all think alike or act in the same way, squeaky clean in our musings.
Most especially, we do not want a world where we’re afraid of stepping outside for fear of the eggshells.