Mini-Feature: Should You Avoid Offending People?

How much effort should an individual put into not offending others?

It’s inevitable that people will be sucked into thinking about whether or not they’re offending others. Indeed as “mimetic theorists” have observed for ages this is one of the main things people’s efforts gravitate into. 

What distinguishes our natural human selves from those of the other animals is that our psyches are nuclear reactors of comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. Pride and envy are part of our equipment and social life is incomprehensible without them—even among many fairly devoutly religious people striving to minimize their impact on our inner and outer worlds. 

Given that our baseline is dumping vast resources into trying not to offend people—trying not to compare unfavorably to others, trying not to be singled out for disapproval, trying not to elicit reactions of disfavor or disgust—the question interestingly emerges as to how much counter-effort we might want to put into trying TO offend people—trying, like Socrates or Jesus, to challenge, disrupt, or throw into question the habitual complicity of people in the imitative patterns that lock us into chain-reactive spirals of pride and envy.

Of course, there are costs to such circuit-breaking efforts, which often ultimately backfire, which is probably a significant factor in the rise of politeness and good manners as an attempted middle ground moderating both offenses to the rivalrous imitative order and the imitative order itself. But as we are seeing now with the confluence of “political correctness” and “cancel culture” and “woke policing” or whatever you might call it, wagering social and psychological order on the reification of mores or customs also appears to be hopelessly unstable. 

Ultimately the only escape from bearing witness to the truth and hazarding the consequences is escaping from your fellow man. But he who lived utterly apart from society, as Aristotle observed, would be more of a beast than a man.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

Some people seem to be constitutionally disposed toward annoying others. One of my favorite writers, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, famously said, "I do and will continue to do, everything in order to be and remain, if not the richest then at least the most unpopular man in France...The total contempt of all of humanity is extremely pleasant to me..."

I sympathize with this perspective, which at least represents a discipline of mind. Indeed, some of my proudest moments have been times when I broke protocol and said obnoxious, insulting things. For instance, I once asked Mayor de Blasio—who was telling everyone that strict immigration rules would have prevented his own grandmother's entry into America—if he understood that even if he had never been born, New York City would still have a mayor?

I have gone on national television and said outrageous things that almost got me fired and inspired immense contempt from the world press—which admittedly was less fun than it sounds—and generally write things that drip with scorn, usually for politicians.

At the same time, I try to be unfailingly polite in my personal interactions with strangers or people I meet in the course of day-to-day business. It would never occur to me to insult a normal person.

As far as issues go, it seems rude to attack individuals on the basis of their personal characteristics. But I have no problem saying anything else, really with very little feeling about whether it would offend someone or not.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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In the greatest movie ever made—Roadhouse (1989)—Patrick Swayze plays Dalton, a martial arts expert who trains a small army of bouncers to defend a dive bar against a small army of thugs. I dare any male to try turning this movie off after it starts playing. It’s impossible. Anyway, Dalton has a saying for his crew: “be nice...until it’s not be nice.” I think that’s a pretty good rule.

In order to follow it, you have to know which values you place above niceness, and which ones you place below. Being nice is a good thing. It's better than being needlessly aggressive just to prove to yourself and others that you can. 

But it’s not as good as truth, or courage, or national security. When you find yourself placing social delicacy above these things, you have been hoodwinked by one of the Left’s favorite tactics. They like to use the value of niceness against us so they can con us out of other more important things. This form of outrage policing deserves nothing but contempt, and unfortunately at this point that requires not being nice. 

You must, I am afraid, say true things. Abortion takes a human life, men cannot get pregnant, women are generally more suited to child-rearing than to military service. There are always accurate qualifications to be made and nuances to explore in polite conversation, but don’t get so tripped up on all those that you become incapable of plain, straightforward speech about things we all know are basically true. Freely, without apology, speak. That’s courage. It saves lives.  

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind