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The Philosophy of Being Offended; News Review; "The Fall Guy"

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Today's Segments:

  • For this month's Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life, we visit with host Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein about if it matters when, and how, we get offended.
  • News Director Dave Thompson talks about his new newsletter and reviews the news
  • Matt Olien says stunt performers shine in The Fall Guy, starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt.

"Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life" Preview Transcript:

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, thanks for joining us today. Oh, I'm thrilled to be here as always. Is there an agreed-upon definition of the word offended?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I don't even know that there's an agreed-upon sentiment that we need to define it. That's one of the things that makes philosophy both so interesting and so difficult. And frustrating.

And frustrating, yes, absolutely. That we are often looking to define things that people take for granted, that it never occurred to them to ask for elaborations on. But being offended, offensive material, all this sort of stuff is so much in flux, and it depends so much on individual and cultural perspective that what the philosopher wants to do is give us a handhold, give us something to grab onto, so that at least we have a place to start the conversation.

So in that sense, I think being offended is an emotion in which we think we are being treated poorly in some way, or we are responding to how someone is acting inappropriately. If it's an emotion, does that mean it's impermeable, is that the right word here, to reason and logic? The history of philosophy has been this massive debate between emotion and reason, and that has caused all sorts of troubles, including the Greeks arguing that men were rational and logical, and women were emotional, and therefore couldn't be in positions of power.

An idea that we still feel the impact of today. But I think starting in the 18th century, and actually some of my own work, is about the overlap between reason and emotion. And so we think that there should be good reasons to have an emotion.

We think we can analyze having an emotion. We think we can communicate to other people, not just the emotion we're having, but they should sympathize with us and empathize on how we feel. That's what therapy is all about.

Therapy is applying a rational structure to our emotions, so we know how to adjust our feelings when they get in the way of stuff.

Ashley Thornberg

I want to play a clip from the upcoming episode of live philosophical discussions about everyday life, and hope that everybody else is reacting to it the same way that I am here.

All of us have more than one way in which we want to be treated and regarded by different people. And so the philosopher's picture has to be much, much more complicated than it's tended to be. So we've tended to talk in terms of just treating each other as equals, and it's always been very unclear to me what that means.

So philosophers have said things like, shake hands and look each other in the eye. But obviously, if you shake hands with your lover, you're not really treating and regarding them in the way that they think is appropriate. They might be offended, actually.

They might think, oh, it's really strange that you're now treating me like you don't know me when we're lovers. So I think it's just much more nuanced picture than the one that the philosophers have tended towards.

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, I bring that up because, of course, people who are significantly othered do have ways that they interact that are expected. But also there is this idea that we all have baggage. You know, when you're in a long-term partnership, you can never have one fight.

You're always having every fight ever. How much of this being primed to be offended in certain relationships comes just from the fact that you might have baggage with someone?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

The thing about significant others is that we are much more vulnerable around them.

We have sacrificed our individuality to be with them. We have created life as a joint project with them, whether it's something as profound as having a kid or something as bureaucratic as owning a house together. And because we have that intimacy, the things that they do can cut us to the quick.

The things that they do mean more, and we can impose more on them because we expect them to mean more. So if your spouse forgets to do the dishes or something like that, it can be a crisis because how dare they disrespect me again by forgetting this thing? But at the heart of this is this question of equality.

And at the heart of this is this question of how do we treat people? And I've said this on our various shows before, that one of the things that I insist my students understand is that treating people equally is not the same as treating people identically. That in order to say that someone has equal access to public restrooms, we have to give some people a larger stall, more real estate because they may need a wheelchair or a caregiver or something like that.

And so you can treat your friends and your spouse equally and you can treat them as equals, but treating them as equals means something different because you're going to have intimacies with your spouse that you're not going to have with your friends and you're going to complain about your spouse with your friends in a way that you wouldn't necessarily complain about with your spouse because you're just venting. You're just getting all of those things out there.

And so if your spouse responds to that friendship by saying I'm offended by this friendship, this friendship makes me feel like I'm not being respected, then the question is what is it that they are reacting to? Because the whole point of the discussion that we're having on the show isn't are people doing wrong things by being offended, but rather what do we learn about people by the fact that they are offended? So if your spouse especially comes up to you and says this thing that you're doing, it bothers me, then the appropriate thing and often the hardest thing is not to say but I was right, but rather to take a breath and say, okay, tell me why you're feeling what you're feeling.

Because again, the whole point of the episode is that the act of being offended signifies something and we learn about the world around us by asking what that signification is.

Ashley Thornberg

Your guest has a really interesting look at the role of signaling here and what it means when it comes to being offended.

For a start, I can enjoy taking offense. I can enjoy being offended, right? If I think everyone else is going to agree with me, it can be a kind of powerful move to take the offense.

But more generally, I think when we're taking offense, we're signaling to someone that they've not behaved in the right kind of way as far as we're concerned.

Ashley Thornberg

I have mostly thought of someone being offended as acting almost exclusively from a state of victimhood. I've never considered it a power move. Elaborate a little bit more there, Jack, on the conversation that you have about how being offended can be a power move and then what this role of how it sort of signals and, dare I say, controls the behavior of those around us.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Think about people who watch horror films and why they do so. They don't do it because they like to see people chopped up. They do it because this expulsion of this emotions, this catharsis, this celebration of fear is part of what makes life exciting.

The same thing with tragedies. We don't love tragedies because we like to see people die in the end. We love tragedies because it allows us to explore emotion.

Why would offense be any different? Why couldn't we enjoy and take pleasure and explore the idea of being offended? Part of what comes up in the conversation is the fact that we portray offense as a crisis, but not every offense is a crisis.

Sometimes offense is an annoyance or sometimes an offense is an excuse to have a conversation. What you are doing there is asserting yourself and your place in society and you're saying, look, the thing that you're doing lacks respect or it misrepresents me or it's not treating me the way that I want to be treated. Sometimes, again, that's something simple.

And so by asserting ourselves, we are doing the exact opposite of claiming ourselves as victims. What we're doing is saying we are important, our perspective is important, and you should attend to us. And that act, especially in a free society, especially in a democracy, to be able to say you should attend to what I am saying is among the most powerful things we can do.

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, this one's going to sound a little like it's coming out of left field, but happening on social media right now is this question and a whole bunch of offended reactions where it was a question aimed at women and said, if you see a man alone in the woods or a bear alone in the woods, what is your preference here?

And a great majority of women said bear, that they would rather see a bear alone in the woods than a man. And a lot of men are offended and frankly angry about this. What do you think is going on there?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, first of all, I think the vast majority of people who claim to be offended aren't. And I think that they're either play acting anger or they're using it as an excuse just to delegitimize the conversation. The conversation is an interesting conversation, and it's to what extent do we look at the world as predator and prey and to what extent is a male human more of a predator than a bear?

And of course, we know from the history of the world that men are predatories in ways that bears are not, because bears are only predatory when they have a reason, when they're frightened, when you're near their cubs or things like that. But men are predatory when they want to take someone home or when their opinion is laughed at.

Ashley Thornberg

My reaction is, OK, a man could very well kidnap me and then rape me repeatedly and then murder me, whereas the bear would just kill me.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

But well, think about your previous question and then think about my reaction. Your previous question was about enjoying offense. And when you told that horrifying example, I laughed and made a joke out of it, in part because it's such a horrifying example that if I take it really seriously, then in addition to it destroying this conversation, it would probably destroy my whole day thinking about the horrendousness of it.

And that, I think, is ultimately the power of this example and why I say I don't take the offensive, the claims of offense online too seriously. What the example forces us to do is take seriously the nature of social relations and take the nature of social standing, which is what Emily McTiernan, the guest, was talking about. Our place in society, take it seriously and look at how we relate to other people.

What many men don't understand is, and this isn't my line, I can't remember the first person to say it, I've quoted her for so long, is that men's greatest fear on a date is that a woman will laugh at him. Women's greatest fear are that they will be murdered.

And once you take that seriously, once you really internalize that attitude, then both as males and females, but anyone has to rethink their behavior and has to rethink how they address other people. One of the weird experiences being a man, especially a bigger man as I am, is sometimes I find myself walking down the street at night behind a woman, five, 10 feet behind a woman or 20 feet. And I know that she is aware of me and that she could be scared of me even though I'm not a danger to anyone.

I'm just a philosophy professor from North Dakota. Who could I hurt, right? And that awareness is built on the idea that there's a vulnerability in our society and that sometimes it's physical and sometimes it's gender-based.

Now, if a man came along and said, I'm offended that you thought I would hurt you. I'm offended that you were afraid of me. We could certainly have the conversation from the woman's perspective and say, well, look, how do I know you're this?

I've never seen you before, bear, woods, et cetera. But I think it would be more interesting and more fruitful in that instance to have a conversation from the man's perspective and ask, why are you offended? Why is it offensive to you when someone engages in self-protective activity?

Why is it offensive to you to be associated with a group of people that you may not wanna be associated with? I think we learn more from examining the act of being offended in that instance than the act of being afraid or quote unquote offending because anyone who's paying attention knows the threats against women who are walking alone at night. But exploring men's emotional lives and exploring the vulnerability that they feel when they are associated with other bad actors, I think those are threads that we really need to pull.

Ashley Thornberg

What happens when we're offended? It almost feels like there can be something of an addiction to being offended.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

That's a really interesting question.

And it's particularly powerful now because so many of our lives are predominantly online and so much social interaction is online. And we know from neuroscientists that waiting for likes and getting responses on social networks increases our dopamine and reacts with our serotonin. I don't know the neurology of being offended.

We didn't talk about that during the show. But it is certainly the case that anything that raises our adrenaline, anything that gives us the opportunity to act out, and I don't mean necessarily negatively, is going to be attractive to us. It will not surprise you to know that a lot of people find things that I do offensive, even when I'm acting on my best behavior, and that there's something about how I present myself, there's something about being from New York, there's something about being a philosopher, there's something about just being me, where I will say things that I think are completely innocuous and people will be offended by it.

Now, even though sometimes I might not, quote unquote, care that they're offended, I might continue to act the way that I am, it doesn't mean that I like offending them, and I would feel bad that I'm offending them, and it would cause me to be embarrassed, or it would cause me to have all of these neurochemical reactions. And so I think part of what you're getting at is that there are a whole bunch of different things going on at the same time when we're offended. Some of it is physiological, some of it is neurological, some a lot of psychological.

And what the philosopher is trying to do is tie that all together and give the experience meaning. And I think that's the shift that I want us to make when we're listening to the episode, is that part of what philosophers do is look at experience and ask, what does it mean? What value does it have?

What does it add or take away from our lives? And so currently right now in our cultural conversations, we are talking about offense as an attempt to end a conversation. You shouldn't make this joke.

You shouldn't post this picture. You shouldn't do X, Y, and Z. Therefore, you should stop.

As opposed to asking, what does this exchange mean? And when I see that person doing this thing that I find offensive, what that tells me about what we value as a society, what I value as an individual, and how those two things interact.

Ashley Thornberg

Am I oversimplifying in saying too that it sort of seems to me that taking offense is almost forcibly looking at something from only a singular perspective or the perspective of an ego?

Like why is it all about me, the thing that you said? Even if it's like, you posted a banana bread recipe and if I don't happen to eat gluten, I'm gonna be offended that you would post something with flour.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Certainly in the standard example that we use today, it is about me, but there's another way of looking at it in which being offended is my way of telling someone else that they are not considering me appropriately, that they're not respecting me or society appropriately.

Sure, there are times when we are all egocentric. Sure, there are times when we misinterpret things as about us when they're not, but there's just as many times when someone is doing something that is narcissistic or that is completely tone deaf and are being offended says, hey, you need to rethink what you're doing because I'm offended by it, which means that you're stepping on a norm, you're crossing a line, you've done something wrong. In our cultural conversation, we keep talking about offensiveness as if it's a negative and stopping a conversation, but in fact, part of what the project that Emily is working on is saying that being offended is the start of the conversation and it's something really important to work on.

Ashley Thornberg

If that is in fact the invitation to go deeper and just the beginning of the conversation, how come we're not doing that?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I think we're not doing that for two reasons. I think as a society, we're in massive flux and everything feels threatening to people who disagree with whatever they're looking at, but second, as a society, we are all individuals and when somebody challenges our social standing, we feel vulnerable going all the way back to the conversation about your spouse.

Most of the time when we don't wanna engage in a conversation, it's because we feel that it's risky. We feel that it will hurt us in some way and for many people, finding out they're wrong is in itself a crisis. They don't wanna handle it.

They're horrified by it and they'd rather shut off the conversation than look at themselves in the mirror and- We do love our ego selves. Yeah, and so we need to create a society. We need to create a space where examining yourself is prioritized and where you can do so safely, where you can learn, where you can change, where you can acknowledge when you're wrong without negative consequences and for 2,500 years, that's precisely what philosophy has tried to do.

I don't necessarily think it's been very successful at it though.

Ashley Thornberg

I will withhold a comment about it being largely male. But that's really important because it was largely male.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

It still is largely male and when women started pointing that out, a lot of these truth-loving philosophers shut them down and did their best to delegitimize them and it's only been really in my lifetime as a scholar that feminist philosophy has been regarded as equal to other forms of philosophy and that women are allowed to participate in all ranges of philosophy, not just feminism. This is new and it's new because the people who wanted to love truth at all costs could not look at themselves and see their blind spots.