Don’t take the bait.
Being offended is a status symbol of sorts. And giving offense has always been a sport.
We might feel offended when we think our social status is being challenged. Or when someone says something that contradicts our self-image. There may be other reasons too.
Being offended creates a certain moral status. Insulting someone is a way of claiming superiority. And that’s not all. There’s not only moral status in being a victim—there’s also impunity for normally unacceptable behavior because the victim is entitled to revenge.
The drama triangle
How are we to respond to that?
Ever heard of the drama triangle? The idea is that drama results from competition to be either the victim or the hero, and to label someone else as the villain. The more intense the competition, the more drama.
A deeper problem, though, is that neither the victim nor the villain wants to take responsibility for themselves. “It’s not my fault,” says the villain, “I categorically deny it!”
And while the victim isn’t to blame for the situation he finds himself in, he might enjoy the attention he receives and refuse to take action to resolve the situation.
The hero, meanwhile, could have a hidden agenda—and may end up becoming the new villain.
But what does this have to do with Jesus being gay?
Netflix released The First Temptation of Christ just in time for Christmas. It’s a comedy about homosexuality being a temptation for the Lord. And, of course, there’s a petition to ban it.
The reaction online is unsurprising. Christians and conservatives are outraged over this mockery of Christianity. Progressives are gleeful—and quick to point out how fragile Christians are.
Will Netflix air a sequel for Ramadan where Mohammed is gay? Not likely. That would be offensive.
Christians are villains, gays and lesbians are victims, and Netflix is the hero. But in a hypothetical gay Mohammed special, Netflix would be the villain, Muslims the victims, and an outraged public would play the hero.
Being offended is a choice
The best way out is to refuse to play the game. The latest Stoicism themed book is Unoffendable by Einzelgänger. Riffing from ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca, Einzelgänger presents a simple decision tree:
Is the insult true? Then it’s not an insult (even if delivered rudely). It’s irrational to be triggered by the truth. Choose the most ethical response.
Is the insult false? Then it’s nonsense. It’s irrational to be triggered by nonsense. Choose the most ethical response.
Deontology vs. utilitarianism
How do we know what the most ethical response is? There are two competing approaches. One is, “the rules are the rules.” It’s about principles. Another is, “it’s the end result that matters.” It’s about consequences.
Each one has problems. Was it wrong for Germans to lie to the SS about hiding Jews from the Nazis? On the other hand, is a malicious lie not wrong if negative consequences never materialize?
Both principles and consequences are important. Social justice activists, however, say airing an anti-Christian movie is okay because Christians—being the dominant American religion—won’t be harmed. But this betrays equality—the central principle social justice activists claim to believe in. Saying it’s alright to demean certain groups implies that their human dignity is less than other groups. Once we accept that this is okay—or worse, when we say it’s not prejudice because prejudice requires both bias and power—we’ve already started down the road to bigotry.
But Epictetus, another Stoic philosopher, points out that we’re only offended if we think we’re offended. And if we choose not to be offended then we don’t need to get revenge.
The way out
The way out of the drama triangle is:
- First, don’t be a villain.
- Second, don’t play the victim. Bad things will happen to you, but you can choose how you respond.
- And third, don’t try to be the hero. The hero steals the victim’s power, and by trying to fix things lets the villain off the hook. Being a supporter, however—having someone’s back while he takes action for himself—is different from taking the lead role.