Aggression is the malicious and deliberate crossing of the boundaries between persons. It’s an attack and it’s clear. When you see the clenched fists or jaw, or hear the obscenities, there’s no question about it, and an attack is futile unless the target knows that s/he is being attacked.
Offense, though, is the product of the combination of the message, the perception of the messenger, and the reaction of the person who receives the message. For example, if my best friend tells me to “Stop being such a (bleep)” then I’m likely to laugh, agree, and stop doing what I had been doing. The same words coming from a disliked coworker is going to put both of us in the boss’ office quickly.
Claiming offense makes a person into a victim, which, as this space has discussed recently, means having no power and thus no responsibility. There are dozens of ways to duck responsibility and doing that is very appealing.
Ironically, in modern America, claiming victim status usually comes with power. If your coworker annoys you then you are stuck, but if he offends you then someone will take your side.
Oppression is awful and the only moral response to it is to resist it at every step. That’s also the only response that resolves conflict, by challenging aggression at its start and every step afterward, in the hope of reducing the harm done and preventing escalation.
The problem is that, as a nation, we’re all walking around like we’re allergic to different views and our emotional immune systems treat them like viruses. We have what Berk Breathed called, “Offensensitivity.”
If you’d like to be part of the solution, one less highly-reactive person out there, then here are some ideas for systematic densensitization:
Attacks are obvious, so if you have to think about what you just saw or heard, ponder the implications or what seems to follow from that message, then you’re moving away from attack and toward offense. If someone attempts to offend you but you don’t take offense then the attempt fails.
Read a book
In any creative endeavor, short projects are harder because they have to be perfect because there is no room for a wrong note or word. Tom Clancy’s latest novel, though, for example, runs 960 pages and there’s no way that he is at his best for the whole book. Books are a good way to build tolerance for imperfect thoughts from good thinkers.
Bite the bullet points
If you are liberal then watch Fox News from time to time. You will get some news and you won’t be seduced by the bias. If you are conservative then listen to NPR in your car occasionally. It won’t turn you into a socialist – you’ll still drive on the right.
Go for dinner, not at a chain but at a family-owned restaurant. That’s what people and life are like, you get some choices but you come for the whole experience, rather than a supermarket where pick the ingredients.
The point is not to ignore the attacks which result from racism, sexism, classism, or other forms of bigotry, which are also offensive. The point is to distinguish attack from offense from simple difference and thus to engage in conflict only when necessary, only when done knowingly and for good reason of defense of self or others.