Taking Offence

I’ve been thinking about our society’s attitude towards offence, and what that says about our values.

I’m not talking about the fact that what causes offence has changed.  Sure, things that used to cause offence (like swearing and nudity) are now common-place, and things that used to be common-place (using ‘guys’ as an a non-gender specific pronoun) now cause offence.  But culture will change over time, and what is considered offensive will also change.  Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

But the way we treat (or expect to treat) people who cause offence has changed.

Offensive behaviour or comments used to be considered as something said or done in poor taste, or out of ignorance.  You could put up with it, or point out what was wrong.  Or, more likely, point out that there were venues where it was appropriate to say or do such things.  Like your own home, or at a later time on the same TV station.

Today you are much more likely to see some kind of campaign on social media to have a person lose their job, or have a contract cancelled, or even be fined or taken to court because someone has taken offence by something they did or said.

To my shame, I look at news.com.au each day to see what is going on (I don’t watch tv news), and it is about the lowest form of lazy journalism you are likely to find.  Almost daily there is some story of someone who has caused offence, with the bulk of the story being taken up by twitter feed quotes condemning the person and calling for some sort of punishment.

And this has had me reflecting on this change in attitude towards offence.

Certainly there is something of a mob mentality to it.  But standing behind that base level is the idea (which you will see in the more consciously high-minded participants in the public lynching) that we can actually create a society where everyone is nice.

Our society (or at least a pretty significant section of it) has the idea that we can make society just by forcing people to behave a certain way.  That the problem is external behaviour.

Christians understand that the problem is one of the heart – all people are born sinful.  And so there will always be people who give offence – some intentional, some unintentional.  People are always going to take offence – some reasonably, some unreasonably.  Because at heart, each and every person wants to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.

When every person feels that they are the ultimate decider of right and wrong for themselves, being offended by things is the smallest and easiest sign.  And as our society gets further from any common understandings of right and wrong, and more individualistic in its assumptions, the more and more offence we will take, and the louder the demands for those who cause offence to be punished.

The solution is not to force people not to say certain things or do certain things with threats of punishment, public shaming, social media outrage and totalitarian style ‘re-education’ sessions.  The solution is to have our hearts transformed by the God who created us and defines what is right and wrong.

As Christians we have good news for people – that despite our sinful nature, and the offence we cause God and each other, Jesus came to take the punishment for all that offence (and worse) in our place on the cross.  And he promises that he will not only restore our relationship with God, but that he will transform our hearts and lives.


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