Mar 23, 2013
Followup to: Don't Get Offended
Previously, we discussed why not getting offended might be an effective strategy to adopt in order to increase one's practical epistemic rationality. That's all well and good, but just as knowing about biases isn't the same as protecting ourselves from them, the simple desire to avoid being offended is (usually) insufficient to actually avoid it-- practice, too, is required.
So what should you actually practice if you find yourself becoming offended and want to stop? This post aims to address that. In doing so, it also features an expanded discussion of one question that seemed to be a sticking point for several posters in the previous discussion-- if you aren't getting offended, how will you discourage offensive and inappropriate behaviors?
A good litmus test is to check whether experiencing the feeling of being offended seems obviously bad to you-- not the existence of the feeling itself or any behaviors tied to it, but the fact that you are experiencing it. It is important to understand that this refers only to the mental experience of being offended-- this post focuses entirely on the A (Affect) component of Alicorn's ABC model.
While it might sound silly to have the preliminary step be simply thinking that being offended is bad, if you don't think that there's not much point in practicing the remaining steps. In fact, if you don't think that, practicing the remaining steps may be harmful.
Part One: Detection
In order to stop being offended-- or really alter nearly anything about your mental state-- the first step is to increase your awareness of when you are becoming offended and what that process looks like in as early a stage as possible. As in the case of ugh fields, being mindful of your reactions and "watching for the flinch" is an important early step.
As soon as you feel yourself becoming offended, you should notice this. It is then critical to truly inspect your reactions and determine why you are becoming offended. This doesn't mean thinking things like "I was offended because she insulted my friend," which has insufficient detail. Try for something more like "I was offended because she made a severe criticism of another person in the group and I feel that she did not have the relevant social capital to justify making her statement." If you don't have a detailed conception of exactly what it is that is offending you, moving forward will be difficult.
At times you will not be able to do this thanks to the heat of the moment. That's okay and in point of fact it is expected-- truly understanding one's own motivations and responses can be difficult even in unemotional situations. If necessary, wait for calmer times to evaluate such issues or ask others for clarifications or predictions. While the inputs of others might not always be useful, close friends (or unusually perceptive unclose friends) can in many cases pinpoint causes to your behavior that you might be blind to.
If emotionally possible, testing these models is certainly helpful, though I recognize that this can be challenging at times and do not recommend it to the unprepared. In particular, having your friends try to offend you to test your reactions is often a poor idea, as the emotional responses involved can be unpleasant for multiple parties.
Part Two: Dissolution
Once you have the ability to detect when and why you are becoming offended, there are multiple steps that one can take. The two techniques that have been most successful for me in the moment are what I like to call Dissolution and Defense.
The first of those two methods, Dissolution, is what I tend to use under normal circumstances. This method attempts to dissolve feelings of offense by simply understanding them really well and then applying the Principle of Gendlin. For instance, if someone has said an insulting remark to me, I might think to myself "If this criticism is false, then it can easily be defeated by the truth. If this criticism is true, well, you know what P.C. Hodgell says about that... perhaps this criticism was not made in the most optimal manner, but I have no need to be offended, for the criticism will succeed or fail on the basis of the truth, not on the basis of whether it is appropriate."
For me, Gendlin is a true friend and can resolve most of these issues fairly trivially. However, this does not work the same for all individuals. Other techniques, such as perspective shifting, may be more reliable for others. The important strand that I have found throughout many people who can avoid being offended is the concept that being offended is a matter of one's own reaction, not the external world. I irreverently refer to this as the Principle of Hamlet-- there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. It is a key tenet of Stoic thought.
Note that there are a few other things to consider. For instance, one should beware sticky brains when executing this technique. Personally, my brain isn't very sticky, but if yours is you may have to plan around that. There are many considerations similar to this one regarding personal mental styles, and the topic of "Things You Should Know About Your Brain" probably merits a post of its own, but I don't really have space to go into it here. Suffice it to say that nothing presented here is set in stone and you should make whatever modifications are appropriate in order to fit this into your own mental style.
With practice, I have found that the sentiment expressed in this comment can apply to reactions as well as to personal traits-- reactions that I don't like having tend to go away soon after I understand them, since I can then apply these methods to their dissolution.
Part Three: Defense
However, I've found that there are some times in which I am unable to successfully dissolve my feelings of offense. It may be that I am extremely hungry or tired or otherwise impaired and thus have less than normal ability to control my reactions, or that I am simply too shocked to react normally. In this situation, I resort to the secondary method, Defense. This is not glamorous and not cool but it does work. The key to defense is isolating yourself from stimuli that produce undesirable results.
There are multiple forms of this-- the most basic one is simply leaving the area. Other simple methods include drowning something out (simple technique: the classic "I'M NOT LISTENING LA LA LA LA LA," except inside your head), suddenly becoming very (authentically) interested in something else, pretending you have to take a call, etc. One extremely important note is that these methods should be a last resort. Otherwise, it has the potential of becoming an excuse. I seriously considered not putting them in the post at all because of the risk of it making people not take the first method seriously enough. Ultimately, I decided that it would be better for most people to know than to not know-- but seriously, be careful with this.
If you do find yourself having to resort to these methods more often than you would like, there is another option-- active defense. I generally prefer action to reaction, so I tend to prefer active defenses to reactive ones. Active defenses involve self-modification so that certain stimuli no longer produce undesirable results or produce less undesirable results.
For instance, if I know that I am going to encounter someone who may make offensive remarks regarding another of my friends, I may steel myself for this prior to the encounter, saying to myself "While it may be that some of my friends dislike each other and want to express this to me, I should not fall into the trap of becoming offended and getting into an argument over whether or not one's criticism of the other is valid. All my friends don't have to be friends with one another, and trying to enforce this will only add to the trouble. Instead I will make a mild remark and move on."
This is an especially effective method when it comes to preventing surprised or shocked offended reactions, though of course one must always beware unknown unknowns. Marcus Aurelius engaged in an extremely general form of this, advocating that one begin each day by preparing oneself to meet with all sorts of offenses while avoiding anger or irritation. In some respects, the overall practice of Stoicism could be considered an advanced form of active defense-- though not just against becoming offended, but against all wild or uncontrolled reactions.
Part Four: Discouragement
This step is where you evaluate whether taking action to prevent further offensive behavior is merited or useful. As stated earlier, I believe that even in cases when it is instrumentally useful to show offense, one can still perform actions indicating offense without actually experiencing the internal state of being offended. The question then becomes when it is appropriate to do so.
In previous discussion, Oligopsony pointed out that taking offense at inappropriate behaviors can be considered a public good. I disagree to an extent, because I think that in many situations claiming to be offended or acting offended can in fact escalate a situation that would otherwise pass with a small amount of awkwardness and concern. However, simply allowing (truly) inappropriate behavior to continue without objection tacitly indicates that that behavior is acceptable and thus carries negative consequences of its own.
Overall, I find that generally speaking it is often wise to complain about offensive behaviors if you think it is likely that those behaviors will offend others. You should be wary about generalizing from one example, though. I find the sound of silverware contacting teeth to be both off-putting and offensive, but this is not something that I bother to point out with people that I don't expect to interact with often, since I am moderately confident that it is a pet peeve that most people don't care about and aren't offended by. On the other hand, I do bother to point out that fact to people that I expect to interact with frequently if I notice them doing it, since in this case it is worth my time to potentially avert a future instance.
A friend of mine who is currently commissioned as a military officer says that one key principle of effective leadership is "praise in public, punish in private--" in other words, save criticisms for private encounters so that you don't have to worry about potential status implications of making the criticism around others. In my experience, this is also an effective way to deal with offensive behavior while minimizing social awkwardness and the potential for escalation.
In some situations, though, it is simply necessary to stand up when no one else is willing and confront offensive behavior directly. I have done so several times and will say that while it is usually uncomfortable for all those concerned, the result can be worth it. That being said, I urge you to use extreme caution when evaluating whether or not it is necessary to do so. My impression is that many situations that people deem worthy of confrontation could be resolved more effectively through less direct means.
Part Five: CONSTANT VIGILANCE
As a final thought, I've seen a lot of people, thinking they've eradicated some bad habit, fall back into it, as they now consider themselves "safe." When installing epistemic habits, this risk is especially worrisome, since you may not notice that you have lapsed, in which case you can become the highly annoying sort of person who is weak in domains that they specifically consider themselves strong in and thus find themselves resistant to correction.
I must emphasize that I would much rather deal with someone who is offended and knows it than someone who is offended and thinks that he cannot possibly be so. So if you do wish to become a person who does not get offended, do it right. After all, it is dangerous to be half a rationalist.
 This isn't to say that those techniques will necessarily be the most useful for you-- merely that I have found them successful and consider myself sufficiently qualified to explain them. It might be that alternative strategies could be more useful for you-- if so, feel free to post them in the comments, as they could potentially make this post that much more useful for future readers.
 If anyone wants to take the helm and write this post, they have my blessing-- my queue is overflowing right now. Please do send me a link if you do end up doing this, though.