Taking Offense: On the State of Today’s Apathetic Outrage

by R.C. Roberts

John Bartlett, an American writer and publisher who lived during the Civil War, once wrote in his book Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1855): “Being offended is a choice. I believe that…you don’t hear a word and you have to be offended.” I am inclined to agree with Mr. Bartlett, although along a rather different vein than I believe Mr. Bartlett was suggesting. In my opinion, the idea of being offended is a rather important reaction, a reaction based on volition. In our culture, we often find ourselves stuck between two righteous groups, one who believes that being offended is a sign of moral sensibilities, and the other who believes that taking offense to nothing is a sign of strength. Both of these positions are, to me, rather odious in their formulation, because they both lead to a rather Puritanical impulse to control the reaction of an individual to what they have perceived. You are either apathetically always offended, or offensively apathetic.

Offence is an art, I say. Metaphorically, offence is a spark. Those whose virtue must be vindicated by the noise they make on the stage we call social media would be more than happy to continuously start a spark until everything has burned down, or they run out of the proverbial oil. One the other hand, there are those who would refuse to light a pilot light in order to have heat. Both of them get it wrong: offence is the spark towards action, toward the summoning of the will to act upon one’s ideals. Perhaps, on the individual level, offense is what makes moral progress possible.

Offence is not, in itself, a virtue. It is a driver to virtue. When one feels the burn of offence, they ought to act, to do, to be the ideals they hold. And they are to go about this quest with complete knowledge that they may not only be unsuccessful, but that they may find that their values are not even heroic, and perhaps villainous. In other words, one should recognize the burn of offense, but not without the realization that they may be wrong.

So when should one be offended? That is a question I cannot answer, for offence is the toe on which the world has stepped. And not all of us are in such a position for our toes to be stepped on. I personally find my toes stepped on when the liberty of individuals are trampled, when atrocities that belong to the consequence of religious ideology but are merely dismissed as some human flaw without any connection, and when corporations are given a pass on violating an individual’s liberty because it is “their choice.” While I cannot tell you what should offend you (I am neither so pompous nor vain), I can say that one must remember that offence is not something of an uniform reaction. One need not hold a protest and get a hashtag going because of some offense. One can discuss it with others, research it like mad, listen to the opinions of others on the subject, and argue it with those who defend whatever offends you. You can carry that offence into a creative work, or write an article, if that is so your inclination.

Offence and non-offence, nowadays, have become the product of amateur, ill-educated, unskilled, attention desiring individuals who know nothing of what it means to be offended. They know nothing of intellectual integrity, of damaged honor, or of believing in a cause. They merely feed from the tray of apathetic offence, never looking up to realize their slop is not the only thing in which to consume.