Friday, November 13, 2015
On my Mind: Personal Freedom, Being Offended, and Respect
There is a battle as old as eternity that resurfaces over and over again: Should individuals be free to decide their own fate, or should someone else do it for them? We see this battle played out in politics (democracy vs. communism), the workplace, popular culture (think of ANY movie - chances are this theme is in there somewhere!), families, communities, etc. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that most conflicts boil down to issues of independence.
So what happens when we DECIDE something? Logically, it should lead to us DOING something, right? DECIDE and DO are two ends of the same stick. When we pick up a stick that represents Choice A, we are also picking up the actions and consequences that go with it. Without this link, the idea of deciding something falls apart. For example, I can decide I want to lose weight, or become rich, or any other thing - but unless the corresponding "doing" takes place, the decision becomes meaningless. In addition, the things we DO then have influence on the things we DECIDE in the future. Again, two ends of the same stick.
A few situations in the news this week have made me realize that many today are experiencing a fundamental disconnect when it comes to this principle. First - we have what I'll call the "culture of offense" that is growing daily. Angry voices are continually shouting that they have been offended and someone must pay, the most recent being the University of Missouri incident. Several students were offended by the actions of a few individuals making derogatory racial statements, and somewhere along the way, someone decided that it was the fault of the university president and that he should resign. AND HE DID. To many, this seems completely illogical. Shouldn't the individuals that performed the acts be the ones held accountable? How did we get to the place where the resignation of the university president sounds like a reasonable remedy to anyone?
Before I get into discussing how this connects to our battle between DOING FOR MYSELF and DO IT FOR ME, let's set the racial issues aside for a moment. I don't condone racism in any way, shape, or form. Furthermore, I believe that if we can solve this dilemma, we can put so many of these battles behind us and truly move forward. For the sake of our discussion, the derogatory statement hurled could have just as easily been "You're fat", "You're ugly", or "You're stupid or wrong." The type of offense really doesn't matter as we explore this issue.
So just how does being offended fit into the issue of DOING FOR MYSELF vs DO IT FOR ME? At the foundation of believing that an individual controls his or her own destiny is this belief - we can only decide for and control ourselves. Because every one else possesses this same right of self determination, we truly cannot control anyone else. Yet when we scream offense, are we not saying that THAT OTHER PERSON is in control of how we feel? What would have happened if the individuals in Missouri to whom the slurs were directed would have simply turned, looked toward the offender and said "What an idiot. He sure doesn't know much about me and what I'm worth." ? When we try to punish anyone and everyone who "offends" us, are we not trying to control the whole outside world instead of our own response? I am not excusing any bad behavior, and individuals who break the law should certainly be held accountable, but we need to think though the repercussions of the culture of offense. Often, it does the opposite of what is being sought. It widens divides and bad feelings between individuals, the respect demanded is not received, and perhaps worst of all - we subject ourselves to a lot of unnecessary unhappiness. When we take control and responsibility for our own emotions, we will be happier.
So what does that mean? How do we handle offensive people and situations? If it is an offense that is against the law, or against company policy, or school rules, by all means take appropriate action. However, if it is an "offense" that is within that person's rights of free speech or religion, you may just have to make a choice. Choose how much you are going to let that person's words control you and how you feel. Feel free to discuss and respond responsibly. However, you will never be able to demand agreement NOR respect. Those are things that can only be freely given. You can however, choose to move on when there is no other effective solution. Keep being the person of worth that you are, and let your actions INSPIRE the respect you desire.