There’s been a spate of recent media-hyped events in which someone has been offended at something. The media storm surrounding it usually focuses on how terrible it was, how upset the person became, how insensitive the one giving offense was. Blah, blah, blah…
Today I’m going to look at the modern tendency to take offence at everything, anything and anyone for any reason at any time (regardless of context). It appears that many of us are actively looking for any reason to get offended by others, so we can take over-the-top action or retaliation because we’ve been ‘wounded’ (sound familiar?). I’ve touched on this before, but it appears that, somehow, we’ve taken on the notion that we are each the most important person in the world (an interesting statistical blunder at that) – no one else understands us, we deserve to get what we want, when we want it. Others aren’t allowed to disagree, to challenge our worldview, or to operate outside of our expectations.
What’s going on?
We can start with evolution and our default tendencies. Long before we were human we evolved a short-term reward system to help ensure we repeated behaviours that enhanced survival. Known as the mesolimbic dopamine system (and incorporating the nucleus accumbens), this neural circuitry provides us with a reward, in the form of the neurotransmitter dopamine, whenever it perceives that we’ve done something survival-worthy. I say ‘perceived’, but that overstates the processing power of this system; it’s extremely primitive, and is very easily duped. For instance, cocaine increases dopamine expression in this system dramatically (working on dopaminergic neurons in much the same way that antidepressants work on serotogenic neurons – by shutting down the ‘reuptake pump’). Likewise, dopamine expression can be increased by things substantially unrelated or even contrary to our survival, including overeating, excessive exercise, and gambling. Put simply, behaviours or chemicals can be used to easily ‘hack’ this reward system into rewarding something that isn’t about survival. And (you guessed it), the reward system is activated when we anticipate something we want.
But the limbic system has another important survival function: avoiding danger. In this case, we have a powerful system (housed in and around the amygdala) that scans the environment for danger and warns you when it detects it. Like the reward system, it’s not very bright and is easily duped. In fact, it works on false positives (i.e., for survival it’s a lot better to react and be wrong than to not react and be wrong), making us somewhat jumpy. Worse, it gets our attention by using what we call emotions: fear, anxiety, anger, rage, etc. These ’emotions’ are very ‘loud’ and hard to ignore – they evolved to get our attention and modify our resultant behaviour.
Together, you can think of both parts of the limbic system as your internal three-year old. It wants things, has tantrums when it doesn’t get what it wants, and is easily upset. When we let our limbic system steer our behaviours, we often end up acting like grown-up three-year olds: consuming without thought, developing rigid world views, and getting angry when we can’t consume, or when something or someone contradicts our entrenched perspective.
But evolution isn’t everything. We’re just as much the product of our environment as we are our genes (many would say substantially more so). Society shapes us, and it seems that our modern society is shaping us to be less mindful. I know I’ve harped on about ‘mindfulness’ a lot, but to recap very briefly, mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to the world around us without getting caught up in the constant stream of thoughts, labels and evaluations that accompany us. Mindful people observe, attend, and move on.
How is modern society shaping reduced mindfulness? Because now, for many of us, we are able to get what we want when we want it, we’re becoming increasingly intolerant of situations in which our desires are frustrated. Rather than noticing what’s going on, changing what can be changed, and accepting what can’t be, we’re learning that the appropriate response is to start shouting (in three-year olds this is called a tantrum, 40 year-olds like to call it ‘standing up for their rights’). Consequently, tolerance and compassion, two essential elements of a cooperative society, are becoming less in vogue, and rampant self-promotion the behaviour du jour. Likewise, because we all have a soap box (in the form of social media) we assume that other people are listening to us, which inflates our sense of self-importance (yes, I’m aware of the irony). In the past, no-one was listening, and so we had to get over it (or look rather stupid). These days you’re guaranteed at least a couple of sympathetic ears, reinforcing a viewpoint (no matter how childish). Instead of letting things go, we hold onto them because they are reinforced. Once reinforced we start to believe our own brand of crap – and after a while it becomes gospel. Whoa betide any who darest to contradict my entrenched worldview, for it is the way and the truth, and I am RIGHT (and you’re wrong, nah, nah).
In other words, fewer societal controls on shooting one’s mouth off, combined with reinforcement for doing so (in the form of an audience: real or imagined) makes it more likely that we’ll get limbic system activation, and that we’ll attend to the resultant reaction. Our behaviour becomes more and more childish and our ability to reality check and take a mindful stance reduces. Bummer.
It’s important to remember that listening to your limbic system is always the ‘easy’ option. It’s our default, and we are, in fact, hardwired to attend to it. This doesn’t mean we need to, have to, or should, it just means that it’s easy to do so. It isn’t our ‘right’ to get offended, it’s just the easy way out. The alternative is more difficult but, in the long-run, a lot more satisfactory: recognising why we have a tendency to act this way, taking responsibility for our own actions, accepting that we’re not always right (and often wrong), letting others get their own way (yes, really), letting things go, and seeing things from another’s perspective. This takes self-observation, mindful attention, and the ability to detach from your thoughts and feelings, no matter how tempting or correct they appear at the time (have a read of this, this and this). In other words, it means learning how not to be a dick.