Don’t Get Offended

Re­lated to: Poli­tics is the Mind-Killer, Keep Your Iden­tity Small

Fol­lowed By: How to Not Get Offended

One oft-un­der­es­ti­mated threat to epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity is get­ting offended. While get­ting offended by some­thing some­times feels good and can help you as­sert moral su­pe­ri­or­ity, in most cases it doesn’t help you figure out what the world looks like. In fact, get­ting offended usu­ally makes it harder to figure out what the world looks like, since it means you won’t be eval­u­at­ing ev­i­dence very well. In Poli­tics is the Mind-Killer, Eliezer writes that “peo­ple who would be level-headed about even­hand­edly weigh­ing all sides of an is­sue in their pro­fes­sional life as sci­en­tists, can sud­denly turn into slo­gan-chant­ing zom­bies when there’s a Blue or Green po­si­tion on an is­sue.” Don’t let your­self be­come one of those zom­bies—all of your skills, train­ing, and use­ful habits can be shut down when your brain kicks into offended mode!

One might point out that get­ting offended is a two-way street and that it might be more ap­pro­pri­ate to make a post called “Don’t Be Offen­sive.” That feels like a just thing to say—as if you are tar­get­ing the ag­gres­sor rather than the vic­tim. And on a cer­tain level, it’s true—you shouldn’t try to offend peo­ple, and if you do in the course of a nor­mal con­ver­sa­tion it’s prob­a­bly your fault. But you can’t always rely on oth­ers around you be­ing able to avoid do­ing this. After all, what’s offen­sive to one per­son may not be so to an­other, and they may end up offend­ing you by mis­take. And even in those un­pleas­ant cases when you are in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple who are de­liber­ately try­ing to offend you, isn’t stay­ing calm de­sir­able any­way?

The other prob­lem I have with the con­cept of be­ing offended as vic­tim­iza­tion is that, when you find your­self get­ting offended, you may be a vic­tim, but you’re be­ing vic­tim­ized by your­self. Again, that’s not to say that offend­ing peo­ple on pur­pose is ac­cept­able—it ob­vi­ously isn’t. But you’re the one who gets to de­cide whether or not to be offended by some­thing. If you find your­self get­ting offended to things as an au­to­matic re­ac­tion, you should se­ri­ously eval­u­ate why that is your re­sponse.

There is noth­ing in­her­ent in a set of words that makes them offen­sive or in­offen­sive—your re­ac­tion is an in­ter­nal, per­sonal pro­cess. I’ve seen some peo­ple stay cool in the face of oth­ers liter­ally scream­ing racial slurs in their faces and I’ve seen other peo­ple get offended by the slight­est im­pli­ca­tion or slip of the tongue. What type of re­ac­tion you have is largely up to you, and if you don’t like your cur­rent re­ac­tions you can train bet­ter ones—this is a core prin­ci­ple of the ex­tremely use­ful philos­o­phy known as Sto­icism.

Of course, one (per­haps Robin Han­son) might also point out that get­ting offended can be so­cially use­ful. While true—quickly re­spond­ing in an offended fash­ion can be a strong sig­nal of your com­mit­ment to group iden­tity and val­ues[1]-- that doesn’t re­ally re­late to what this post is talk­ing about. This post is talk­ing about the best way to ac­quire cor­rect be­liefs, not the best way to ma­nipu­late peo­ple. And while get­ting offended can be a very effec­tive way to ma­nipu­late peo­ple—and hence a tac­tic that is un­for­tu­nately of­ten re­in­forced—it is usu­ally ac­tively detri­men­tal for ac­quiring cor­rect be­liefs. Be­sides, the sig­nal­ling value of offense should be no ex­cuse for not know­ing how not to be offended. After all, if you find it so­cially nec­es­sary to pre­tend that you are offended, do­ing so is not ex­actly difficult.

Per­son­ally, I have found that the cog­ni­tive effort re­quired to build a habit of not get­ting offended pays im­mense div­i­dends. Get­ting offended tends to shut down other men­tal pro­cesses and con­strain you in ways that are of­ten un­de­sir­able. In many situ­a­tions, mi­s­un­der­stand­ings and ar­gu­ments can be diminished or avoided com­pletely if one is un­will­ing to be­come offended and prac­ticed in the art of avoid­ing offense. Fur­ther, some of those situ­a­tions are ones in which think­ing clearly is very im­por­tant in­deed! All in all, while get­ting offended does of­ten feel good (in a cer­tain crude way), it is a re­ac­tion that I have no re­grets about re­lin­quish­ing.

[1] In Keep Your Iden­tity Small, Paul Gra­ham rightly points out that one way to pre­vent your­self from get­ting offended is to let as few things into your iden­tity as pos­si­ble.