Want to be less offended? Try being more open-minded.
How to cultivate the most important trait for the 21st century
What offends you? How do you react when you are offended?
Next time you are offended, try this little experiment: first notice what it feels like:
- How does your body feel?
- What thoughts arise and run through you?
- What reactions, if any, do you have for the person or thing which caused you to feel this offense?
- Are you justified in feeling offense?
Then ask yourself these questions: How often each day do you feel offended? Have you made it a habit? What offends you? And why?
Your answer to these questions can be instructive.
But wait, why does this even matter?
The health of the public sphere
Let’s take the example of the public sphere. For my money the public sphere is the most important part of a civil society. This public sphere is a place where free expression allows the alchemy and contestation of ideas to produce potential solutions to our most salient problems.
People bring ideas. The ideas are challenged and argued and discussed. It is not the people that matter but the quality of the idea, its testability, its durability under the pressure of counterargument.
We cannot allow an individual’s or group’s desire or proclivity to find offense halt our most important conversations, debates, and searches for solutions.
How to have a discussion
I’ve noticed productive and unproductive reactions to offense-taking. Most people seem to take offense when they are not open to altering their opinion, their world models, their stance on an issue (even before a conversation begins — if this is you, why are you even having the conversation?).
Some people are more prone to take offense given their personality.
Some people learn this offense-taking response.
Unlearning it isn’t easy. Breaking bad habits takes longer than learning new ones.
Being comfortable (and calm) while also feeling offended
When my beta readers or editors tell me my writing sucks, or is lame, or doesn’t attract their curiosity, I sometimes feel this tinge of offense, or hurt, or wish that my writing would have affected them differently. It is human to feel offense: it is a reaction we have, a protective mechanism. My unproductive choices in response are many, but can be summarized:
- Reader/Editor, you are wrong! (Insert name-calling.)
Or I could take a moment and realize their response is a response not to me as a person but only to words and thoughts on a page, translated into images and feelings in their subjective experience of consciousness.
In one sense, you can’t control your thoughts or your feelings because you are your thoughts and feelings. They run along.
But you can also notice the physiological change. Your cheeks heat up. You look for words to counter your opponent. Here is a choice. When someone offends you in thought or deed or argument, will you shut down the argument by name-calling, by letting your taking of offense destroy an opportunity to listen, for self-improvement? Or will you listen and carry on?
Sometimes it is right to leave a discussion. Intent matters. Sometimes you have to stay in the ring.
Did you intend to offend me?, you might ask your perceived opponent. Of course not, they reply, but I am making an argument you don’t like. Alright then, you say, let’s continue this discussion — help me understand your point of view.
Also, and this seems very very important: Speak for yourself, not for others.
If I speak for myself, then I can speak the truth. There is a tendency to speak for others, to usurp their individuality to bolster your own argument. Resist this urge. Speak your mind. Let others speak theirs.
This is not to say that context doesn’t matter. Of course it does. But the argument matters above all. Is what is being uttered sensible and good?
To say I am a 30-year-old homo sapien writer who lives in Minneapolis but who grew up in Gabon, Indonesia, China, and a few other places, with a father whose father died when he was 15 months old and a mother whose father died from lung cancer when she was 31 and whose mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s sometime later. Most people see me as an (attractive) white male with few grievances. They happen to be right, I carry few objective grievances, and even fewer subjective grievances based on how I’ve trained myself to view the world.
But, and aha!, I’ve found something: few people know my grandmother was part Indonesian. Some people will, mistakenly, I believe, suggest this carries significance. But this shouldn’t change my authority to speak on anything whatsoever. My article on the Indonesian banking system, which I published in college, should carry no extra weight (nor did I mention this fact about my ancestry in my submission to the selection committee). If I were to say something ridiculous like “As someone with Indonesian ancestry” I should be given no extra credit, and perhaps should be given less credit — it is rather the soundness of my the arguments, the words and phrases I utter next which are what matter, are what you should listen most carefully to.
What is open-mindedness, really?
Maybe the human brain doesn’t want to be open-minded. It is difficult to navigate the world. There are so many problems. The world is out to put me down. Life is suffering.
But there is also curiosity and love to seek. It is exciting to notice the mind’s models internally compete, weighing new evidence, new experiences. The discomfort is a powerful positive stress, on the other side of which lies transformation: the individual becomes a limitlessly progressing person. There is always more to learn, new arguments to refine.
The new center
In a future article, I’d like to discuss the ‘new center’ and ‘centrism’ that has entered the public sphere to some fanfare. I find it compelling and feel it has a relationship to openness and open-mindedness, on searching diligently to the best answers to problems, and adjusting those answers when the situation and context change.
It is easy (and dare I say lazy) to fall back on your chosen ideology (or did the ideology choose you?), but much more difficult and satisfying to take each new problem for itself, and hear the arguments and proposed solutions without pre-existing notions of what you feel the answer is or should be.
Have the courage to dispense with received opinions and generate your own. Who cares if you were were attached to an idea for a year or a decade? There is a kind of freedom in embracing alternative ways of thinking.
When you are having what you perceive to be difficult or challenging discussions, don’t give up your chance to hear another’s argument. By listening you might change your mind,
and then the world has changed.
Call to Action
If you want to learn how to read artfully AKA slowly (like me) but still read one book a week, check out my reading checklist.