All my life I’ve tried to avoid offending people and wondered if that’s even possible. Sometimes the gap between intention and effect inches a little wider and suddenly someone you thought your friend or ally (or at least sympathetic listener) feels hurt or disrespected. You don’t mean to offend, but you do.
And I’ve been on both sides. The most neutral and, in retrospect, most innocent statement sends me into paroxysms of sensitivity and peevishness. “What did you just say?” my psyche shouts, its back instantly up, its fists balled, ready to retaliate.
What can you do in such moments? You can beg help from reason. When you’re on the offending side, you ask, “What did you hear me saying?” and when you’re on the offended side, you say, “Explain what you mean.”
But not always. Sometimes people throw their hands in the air and walk away, content to leave everything unsettled and proud to wound or feel wounded. Then they don’t really want a solution so much as proof of their rectitude. Though, as Robert Half once said, “Convincing yourself doesn’t win an argument,” sometimes that’s the only part of the argument people care about, the part that allows them to preserve their self-image. They need to be okay, so no one else can be.
We do a lot of walking away these days. Self-righteousness runs rampant in the current political climate, and few candidates seem interested in engaging or even listening to the opposite point of view. Civility offers no political advantage. Strategically, offending your opponent can pay off if you bait him or her into another gaffe, the sort of devastating mistake required to torpedo a campaign. Offending others is the point. The intention isn’t to be polite or reasonable or to exchange political views but to goad your opponent into blowing his or her cool.
“In science,” Carl Sagan said, “it often happens that a scientist says, ‘You know, that’s an interesting argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their mind, and you would never hear that old view from them again.” In politics, Sagan said, that would never happen.
I like to think that, were humans telepathic, they might feel exactly what others feel and perceive their intentions exactly. It’s hard to judge harshly when you truly know the other person. Knowing comes close to understanding, and understanding comes close to love. Even if someone aimed to criticize or offend, we might know the source of the ill-will and accept at least its subjective validity. Knowing why the conflict exists might be enough to soothe any hurt and reach a compromise. But who is asking why now?
“Use soft words and hard argument,” says an English proverb. Perhaps we’re bound to argue, but, these days, the soft words rarely appear. Intractability is the current political fashion. Good sense and moderation seem politically devastating.
Though I did not watch much of the political convention aired this week, I saw many angry faces and heard many angry sound bites suggesting no less than the complete erasure of the last four years. I understand these speeches aim at converts. They hope to inflame adherents and spur them to a level of support bordering on zealotry. At a national party convention, you have no need to persuade or convince. Yet, I’d be more moved by dispassion, reason, and the sort of subtle distinctions that might locate the increasingly narrow path to solutions and progress. I’m tired of vehement disdain promising only more offense and more conflict.
I’m beginning to wonder who is listening and who even cares to.