Diversity and Offense
© 30 Apr 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Tempering tolerance with toleration.


In the gospel of Jesus Christ are taught two complementary objectives: to give no offense and to take no offense See, e.g., Matthew 13:21 and 18:7. . I find it relatively easy to identify others who need each virtue more, both those whom I am not prescient enough to avoid offending and those who appear to be blatantly and intentionally offensive in every act. As with most virtues, it is easy to see the need for others to develop these two.

As I spend time with people striving for increased diversity I find that many preach the importance of not giving offense, but few peach the companion principle of not taking offense. Now, I understand why this is. There are various forces at work, such as pigeonhole bias and stereotype threat, that cannot be reliably countered once offense is given. It is also typically the case that those giving offense are in more favorable state to control their actions than those receiving offense are to control their reactions. But this one-sided argument has its own problems.

There is a pervasive stereotype I encounter in the world that all groups for which people are trying to remove the negative impacts of offense are overly-sensitive hypocrites. I have even heard several jokes that are based only on this perception. The problem with this is that, although insensitive and offensive, these perceptions are based on reality. A person who lives in a world where the mantra is “‍don’t offend me‍” naturally grows up with an “‍it’s your fault‍” mentality to offense.

I often reflect on how we might effectively change the message. How do you convey to the repressed “‍let the small stuff slide off your back‍” while still conveying to the repressing that “‍even a word in jest can offend?‍” Without the later, the oppressed remain oppressed; but without the former, the oppressed may be tolerated but rarely embraced.

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