The Tyranny of the Offended

When is it a foul to cry, “FOUL!”?  And what evil can be worked by making the charge falsely?

To be sure, there are many offenders in this world–many abusers, manipulators, and cheaters.  Many who are violent and vile and unfair.  Many who take unfair advantage, and who won’t play by the same rules by which they expect others to play.  We have all–even the tyrants among us–been mistreated by such people from time to time.  For some of us it’s occasional, and for others, such mistreatment is a way of life.  For some it’s severe, and for others it’s mild.  Still, however, we have all suffered under it, even if we also sometimes dish it out ourselves.

Since this is no secret about our world, it’s a fairly common theme that people frequently complain against such offenders.  And when such complaints are made, they often–but not always–raise the public awareness, if only for a moment, and gather some level of public support.

But what happens when someone attempts to cheat by raising such an alarm inappropriately?  What happens when someone yells, “FOUL!” when no foul has been committed?  What shall we do when someone accuses “RACIST!” or “BIGOT!” or “UNLOVING!” or “BIASED!” against someone who is not engaging in any such offense?

Whoever would raise such an outcry when it is not called for in reality must either be in error, or in a lie.  And both are bad,  of course.  But either way, we are still left with the question of what we will do with such false alarms?

Shall we pile on and enforce them anyway, as if any such charge is sure to be true and accurate, and could not possibly be false?  Shall we assail the alleged offenders, anyway, even if we know, or should know, that they have not done anything wrong?  And if we should choose not to do that, don’t we risk further offending the one who is shouting “OFFENSE!  OFFENSE!”?  Do we really want to be subjected to their scorn if we should ignore them?

The whole idea behind crying out in general is that good people should team up to oppose the harmful behaviors of others, right?  And in general, our society is somewhat ready (even if only modestly so) to team up against certain offenders.  But how good are we at judiciously handling such cases?  As judges of such things, how fair are we?

I submit that most of us are quite poor at it, and are somewhat biased as judges.  Further, I submit that we ourselves frequently fall victim to the pressures of the tyranny of the offended—by which I mean the abuse of those who will cry “ABUSE!” even when there is none.

In most cases, we simply don’t want the hassle.  And in some cases, we’re not really all that sure how these things should be settled, anyway–which leads me back again to not wanting the hassle of sorting it all out.  And in yet other cases, it’s more complicated, for we ourselves agree with the one making the false charge, because we, too, are being dishonest, irrational, or irresponsible in this particular matter.  We have our biases and we jump to our conclusions.  We have our “persecution complexes” and our conditioned responses and all manner of unruly cognitive habits that tend to stack the deck against certain other people—as if they’re already mostly guilty of offense, even before they have done or said a thing.  And we certainly have our team loyalties, by which, if we are not careful, we can tend to keep our my-side bias magazines fully loaded with ammunition, just waiting for anyone to dare to mess with our team.  This would tend to presuppose, of course, that nobody opposing our team could possibly be right in a disagreement with us, or could possibly have a right that would interfere with us getting whatever we want.

In our current climate (if it hasn’t waned too much since the charges started pouring forth a few months ago), one public charge of sexual harassment (at least of a man harassing a woman) is enough to turn a great many people against the alleged harasser, without so much as a hearing of the facts.  And I note that this same rule seems to hold true even in Internet debates, where certain people tend to gang up on another because “We don’t like your tone” or “You are offensive” or “You are arrogant” or “You just like to argue”.  What really seems to be going on in almost every such case is much less egregious than the charges made.  Even though few will say it this way, what’s really at the heart of such cheating counterattacks is often something like, “We don’t like what you’re saying.”  In that, of course, there is no real offense–no foul–no rules having been broken.

Even so, they play the system against the one whose message they don’t like.  They pick highly-emotional, highly-prejudicial complaints to make against the one they don’t like, knowing pretty well that many in their intended audience will pile on without ever considering the actual facts.  I see it in political argument frequently, and even in religious argument—even among members of the same religion!   In a discussion about the strength of the evidences for or against some particular doctrine, for example, the argument quickly turns to charges that someone is being “unloving” or “judgmental”, perhaps, or that they obviously don’t “have enough faith”, or even that they “must not really be a believer”.  Uh, what happened to the discussion of the facts, and how did that suddenly get left in the dirt so that you could have a brawl about “tone”?

They will claim great offense, and will suggest that a terrible and egregious violation of decency has occurred—one that even threatens to shipwreck the very faith of some of the weaker members in the group, and that must itself be somehow the product of satanic involvement—and if not that, that it is certainly so sinister as to be beyond the pale of anything that could ever come up in the genuine conversation of a true seeker of the truth.  Indeed, what’s really in play here, they will suggest, is not a discussion about some point of doctrine, but something much darker—and the one with whom they disagree, of course, is at the very heart of that darkness!

But when this happens, what is typically done about it?  Does the rest of the crowd say, “Now, wait a minute–I think you’re going too far here?”  Do they rather stay silent?  Do they communicate privately to confront the abuse being perpetrated by the ones crying “FOUL!”?  Sometimes they do, but this does seem rather rare to me.

Rather, it seems that the going “wisdom” in our culture is to let such things be.  That is, to let the abusers continue on in their cry of “OFFENSE!”, even when it’s quite obvious—or should be quite obvious–that they are only offended because they don’t like to be questioned—that is, because they are incorrigible.  This should come as no surprise to us, as this is what our culture does about most wrongs.  This is what we do about our government operating at a deficit, and about all the corruption in government.  This is what we do about corporate abuse and about lies in the media and about toxins in our food and water.  We tend not to go after such things, but rather, to do the minimum required to make ourselves feel not to bad about ourselves—such as, perhaps, complaining about it on Facebook, or even such a minimal thing as “thinking about it.”

The number of people who will unfairly pile on to someone speaking the truth is quite high in our culture.  There are a lot of people, it seems, who are ever on “ready” to detect any offense that can possibly be detected (or fabricated), and to shout it from the mountaintops—as if the world owes them some manner of reparation for the travesty of them having been offended by something in their own biases.

This is a societal problem that cannot be fixed, of course, unless a great number of people should become willing to fix themselves—to abandon their own biases and their own avoidance of the work that is required to tidy up the messes that occur in our own cognitive and moral lives.  As long as we are willing to cheat against someone else by calling “OFFENSE!” unjustly, there will always be someone to cheat against us in that very same way.

There are already in this world, of course, far more tyrants, abusers, offenders, racists, bigots, thieves, and so forth, than we can bear.  They get away with it because this world, generally speaking, will not stand up to them and put a stop to it.  So, when we add to all this quagmire such  false charges of this same kind of behavior, just to cause a stink for somebody we don’t like, just what are we doing?  Are we not appealing to that same raging sea of evil to rush it’s chaotic and unruly waves to our own advantage?

That’s the way I see it.  When we lie with false charges, we are making an appeal, not to the righteous and just and wise citizens of this world, but to the unruly, unfair, and ignorant ones who are likely to be incited by such false charges.   And thus, the tyranny of the offended continues.

If we must judge, then let us judge justly.  And if we refuse to judge, then let us never call for judgment against our assailants, for we do not deserve such help if we will deny it to those who are falsely accused.

What kind of people are we?


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