Sunday, November 22, 2015

Hurt My Feelings, I'll Hurt Your Livelihood

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Fortunes are being made these days by opportunists in what I call the Indignation Industry. All you have to do is claim that someone has offended you in some way and you may be able to wring a nice little court settlement out of them for your "pain and suffering" while the people who run afoul of such sensitivities can lose their job, or their business and their social standing. The threshold for violating such standards are very low indeed.

In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, journalism schools were bulging with young writers like me intent on becoming the next Woodward or Bernstein. In my newswriting class, we learned the legalities of liable and slander: you can express any opinion you like about someone as long as you do not accuse or imply that they have done something immoral or illegal. You can call somebody and idiot as much as you want, but you cannot call them a crook unless you know it to be factual and can back it up. Even then, unless they have been found guilty in a court of law, you cannot report it in the media as fact. This is why news outlets, when reporting on an arrest, must refer to it as "alleged", as in "police allege that Smith held up the bank." Until there is a conviction in court, "alleged" is the required qualifier. But to say something that merely hurts another's feelings, though tacky, is something we endure as a cost of having freedom of speech.

Yet aside from crime reporting, the landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. Nowadays employees regularly attend "sensitivity training" classes to avoid the slightest misstep in their language and behavior, lest they offend someone. The ways that this can happen are many and they are nuanced. Suspensions, firings and lawsuits can result from the slightest violation. Public figures are often skewered in the media for perceived insensitivities and careers can be tarnished as a result. College campuses today are aflame with protests akin to the 1960's as students demonstrate against "micro aggressions" and "triggers", meaning even the slightest perceived slight of race, gender or some other aspect of humanity's ways of differentiating ourselves. College faculty and staff live in fear that they will be drummed out of their positions for the slightest misstep.

It seems we are divided and antagonistic against one another more than ever. Our society is hypersensitive, ready to be aggrieved at the slightest insult, even if the offender doesn't intend or even realize they've caused offense. Technologically we've advanced in fantastic ways. Relationally, we've regressed perhaps and equal amount.

So we have arrived at the unhappy place where if you commit the intangible offense of hurting someone's feelings, you can be punished in very tangible ways that cost you your livelihood. Some observations:

First, such obsessiveness over the faintest shades of perceived insult is an aspect of our affluence. We have the luxury of getting the vapors over some picayune offense because we don't have much else to worry about. This is why you see such hypersensitivity and the public protests in the western nations of Europe and America, recumbent as we are in our wealth compared to the rest of the world. When you aren't too worried about whether you'll eat today, whether your village water supply is contaminated with cholera or whether some terrorist wants to kill you, your mind can wander to other bogeymen of your own imagining.

Second, our unity as a nation has become frayed and tattered because we have lost a shared belief in a common ideal, that America is a nation made up of diverse people aspiring to make their lives better because we have freedom to do so. In those countries like I just described, where life is more a matter of mere survival rather than prosperity, often the hindrance to upward mobility is the lack of freedom due to corrupt and oppressive governments. America has prospered because America is free, or has been largely so for most of it's history. Though societal prejudices may exert barriers to some ethnicities and cultural identities, they can be over come by anyone, and there is hardly a place on the planet with better opportunities to improve one's lot in life than America. Yet that tremendous blessing and opportunity has become overlooked. We ignore that blessing common to all of us, even disparaging the nation that grants such freedom, and turn on one another, biting and devouring one another. Because we take for granted the freedom we have, we see one another as enemies whom we believe are holding us back in life.

Finally, we've lost the quality of being big hearted. We are becoming small, narrow and touchy. We've forgotten what it means to shrug off a thoughtless comment, to have the maturity to ignore a slight or insult. We are coddled and self-entitled with the result that it's all about us. Me, myself and I are our three favorite people, so it's no wonder we are so thin skinned. Rare today is the person who, if someone makes some tacky remark, can simply think to themselves, "Oh well. So what?" or even better, give them the benefit of the doubt that they meant no harm.

To attain that level of maturity requires that we become other centered, that we allow God to build in us the unselfish love that Paul describes in the passage from 1 Corinthians cited above. If we allow the Spirit of God to grow that unselfish love within us, grievous slights will occur less and when they do we will be quicker to let them roll off of us rather than stick and provoke. We can become more forgiving, and with that will come a more unified people supportive of one another, less combative.

It might drain the profit out of the Indignation Industry, but the riches that will replace it are far more lasting and gratifying.

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