Earlier this year, a print journal in the United Kingdom–Faith Initiative: Embracing Diversity–asked me to write an article on why people take offense. In future blog posts, I will tell you more about this magazine’s mission and how people are bridging religious differences.
Today, I give you the article in electronic form on how taking offense can escalate conflicts and how to stop that.
It can seem nowadays as if we have to muzzle ourselves to avoid offending someone. It seems as if people have lost their sense of humor, their sense of proportion, and their ability to tolerate differences. From the inter-personal to the social, and all the way to the global levels of human interaction, it feels like there are more ‘egg shells’ strewn on the ground than ever before.
Step wrong—say the politically incorrect thing, make an innocent but ignorant observation, tell a poorly considered joke or satirize someone’s cherished beliefs—and the consequences can be dire.
Take the example from a few years back in Kent, England. An elected official, Councillor Ken Bamber, was legally forced to pay thousands of pounds in compensation to Brian Kelly who took offense at an ethnic Irish joke the Councillor told at a public event.
That was just the beginning. Soon, British journalist Douglas Murray took offense in writing about the fact that Kelly’s feelings of offense had been better compensated than privates in the British armed forces. Readers, including Irish journalists, took offense at Murray’s exhortation to readers to send in more Irish jokes as a way of putting things back into proportion.
A tempest in a teapot? Perhaps but it quickly escalated into a perfect storm.
Why did Kelly take such offense? Put another way, why are ethnic jokes (or any that make fun of a select group) considered offensive? It is because they rely on exploiting negative stereotypes without the mitigating benefit of trusting that the joke teller appreciates the fullness—both good and bad aspects—of the group being lampooned.
This is why people are allowed to make fun of their own kind but don’t tolerate it well when others do so. When there’s a power differential, as occurred between Kelly and Bamber, the instigating offense is compounded. It requires a response to rebalance the power. This is what Kelly did by taking Bamber to court.
Social scientists studying the origin and expression of moral emotions—our sense of dignity, fairness and justice–say that humans are wired to scan for and protect against possible harm to themselves, loved ones and affinity groups.
Taking offense is a behavioral reaction to defend against a real or perceived threat. The threat is often initially felt as an insult and disrespect. It might not be directly aimed at us yet we might feel a bond or empathy with the target and feel the insult as keenly as if it were.
Whether intentional or unintentional, insults leave their mark, provoking a defensive response. As with the joke incident, once an offense has been taken, escalation is sure to follow unless it’s nipped in the bud.
Are people more disrespectful in these times? Have they truly become less tolerant? More prone to hair-trigger reactions at the slightest provocation? More likely to justify defensive, even violent, responses on the basis of real or perceived egregious offenses?
According to social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, the same evolutionary forces that make us cooperative also make us defensive and vigilant to insult.
“Morality binds and blinds.”
Haidt’s research shows that human beings have developed strong group tendencies, what he calls “groupishness.” Historically, from a survival perspective, group cooperation helped people obtain food and shelter more efficiently as well as defend against common foes. In modern times, groupishness explains our attraction to group-oriented pursuits such as sports, politics and religion.
While binding us to these collective organizations with a shared morality and viewpoint, groupishness also sets us against those we perceive as being part of opposing groups.
Consider how our tendency toward groupishness is impacted by the global economy and World Wide Web. One result is fluid and pervious borders and boundaries. People all over the world can now peek into our back yard as it were.
Once protected and cherished cultural practices are now open for all to see and judge.
Furthermore, the forces of globalization require some groups to change in ways they don’t like, may not be ready for or threaten their sense of identity, associated beliefs, and preferred way of life.
People who feel threatened tend to become defensive and entrenched. Ironically, the internet facilitates entrenchment even as it creates opportunities to expand our knowledge. It’s easy to subscribe only to blogs, news feeds and websites that support our views and ignore the rest. This provides social proof that our beliefs have value and reinforces them.
When people feel threatened, they tend to close ranks and remain on high alert, constantly scanning for possible harm to themselves, their family or their group. This reaction is both a mental and physical state due to how the human brain works.
When our brain senses a threat—and we’re wired to be especially alert to danger—it sends chemical messages to parts of our body that release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
These hormones hijack our ability to think. It all happens at a subconscious level before we have a chance to determine the seriousness of the threat.
From an individual survival standpoint, this instantaneous physiological response can mean the difference between life and death. For an intact group, it can mean continuation or annihilation of that particular group identity.
Incidentally, positive stimuli—a reward or compliment, compassion and understanding—trigger the release of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin which give us feelings of well being.
Highly effective leaders intuitively understand how to tap into our emotional brain. They know how to stir us up and keep us that way. They encourage their followers to take offense in defense of their group.
They inspire people toward a future vision greater than themselves. Rallying cries, reminders of former wrongs and insults, repeated stories of the greatness of their group and the evil that resides in the other, promises of glory or redemption—these and similar techniques all get those hormones flowing and help forge strong bonds of kinship.
The longer this continues, the more the brain forges neural pathways that reinforce beliefs and their supporting behaviors. The brain likes patterns and it rewards us when we add information that it can readily sort and store in recognizable mental file drawers. The reward is a feeling of comfort and of certainty. It feels right.
Most of us want to maintain that good feeling. We like consistency between our beliefs, perceptions and experience. New information that doesn’t readily fit into our existing mental file drawers feels uncomfortable. We have to work harder to assimilate it even if we’re interested and open to new ways of thinking.
Here’s the question:
Is it possible, given our brain’s physiology and proclivities toward groupishness, to moderate our behavior to avoid escalating into unproductive conflict?
The answer is yes.
We can learn how to manage our emotions and behavior.
Over extended periods of time, each of us has the ability to either reinforce or reinterpret the original triggering event that led to feeling offended. Just as sub-conscious emotions can trigger behavior, so can thinking change our emotions and the resulting responses.
What we tell our brain is what it will do. The trick is to engage our neo-cortex, the thinking part of our brain, sooner rather than later to help us make prudent decisions if we wish to avoid or mitigate conflict.
The human brain is plastic—it is capable of learning and forming new neural pathways. It does this all the time. We are not only emotional creatures at the mercy of raging hormones. We are thinking beings.
When we feel offended, we can pause and take a few deep breaths to rush blood to our neo-cortex so we can respond thoughtfully.
It’s not too late to catch ourselves after a knee-jerk reaction to try to improve the situation.
Even small gestures of conciliation can make the difference between escalation and communication:
A change in our tone of voice; conceding that we shouldn’t have said something or said it ‘that’ way; acknowledging we may have over-reacted to or misinterpreted the intent behind what was said or done. Taking a first small step just might trigger reciprocity in the other person.
Have you ever taken offense only to have the situation escalate? What do you wish you could have done differently, if anything, to change what happened?