“Ken Keyes so wisely said, ‘More suffering comes into the world by people taking offense than by people intending to give offense.’ The offended ones feel the need to offend back those who they think have offended them, creating defensiveness on the part of the presumed offenders, which often becomes a new offensive—ad infinitum.”
– Richard Rohr, Falling Upward
My early days as a writer were often fueled by responding to people I considered worthy of criticism. In fact, a website can thrive simply by serving as the critic of certain groups or individuals. In cases where there is no accountability for abusive leaders, they can serve an important purpose.
Speaking for myself and my own situation, I didn’t have a single original or constructive thought for quite some time. I only had reactionary thoughts. I didn’t invest in the personally costly work of creating something else. I only called people to fight or oppose something—or someone. Make no mistake, it’s always easier to be a critic, not a creator.
I didn’t see that I was becoming just like or worse than the flawed people I opposed. The more I leveled criticism at those who criticized or judged me, the more I perpetuated a self-defeating cycle that only pulled me further down rather than lifting anyone up. I would have been better off saying nothing.
I routinely ran the risk of dehumanizing the objects of my critiques into mere containers for their ideologies. I painted them with broad brushstrokes, covering up any of their virtues so I could focus on what I wanted to attack. It’s much easier to pick someone apart who appears to be, on the surface at least, irredeemable and completely worthy of scorn. In taking offense and responding out of that anger, I applied a label and reduced that person to an idea that must be defeated.
To make matters worse, the moment I hit back, the original offender could claim the status of “victim,” whether rightly or wrongly. Once the cycle of mutual offense begins to spin, it’s extremely hard to end it in any matter that would come close to being redemptive or constructive for either side. In fact, both may be pulled downward, obsessing over the need to strike back after absorbing an insult or accusation.
By bringing all of this up, I can understand that some may say I’m undermining accountability and potentially propping up those in power. That’s the last thing I want. Rather, I want to talk about how we can overcome what is truly offensive by modeling something better and hopefully even more potentially transforming than what is offensive. The times I have struck against what is ugly and offensive, I have found my own soul adopting the tactics and mindset of the other side.
It has been hopelessly counterproductive to strike back against an offense in kind.
I don’t know where we draw all of the lines here, especially since each situation is unique, but I do know that I personally need to figure out a way to respond to an offense by modeling and even offering something better. The correction needs to have some sort of invitation that aims to break down walls and provide a path to redemption—the very opposite of an attack that may build up another wall and apply labels that could prove counter-productive.
This is an attempt to tread on the high road, and it is by far the most demanding way to go. I certainly don’t like it. I fear that I could get it wrong and still make a mess of things.
However, I have this one thing going for me: every time I’ve struck back at someone I find particularly wrong and offensive, I regret the outcome immediately. More often than not, the other party just retreats further into a defensive posture and sends yet another offending jab my way.
If the goal is to fester ongoing conflict, that’s easy enough to do. If the goal is loving my enemies, forgiving those who wound me, and offering the hope of transformation through the indwelling Spirit of God, there’s no denying that I must work twice as hard to offer an alternative.
Learn more about the connections between prayer and writing in my book: