What Does It Mean to Offend? – How Independent Are You This July 4th?

What is offense? What does it mean to offend someone, their lifestyle, their beliefs, their station in life, their actions, their family members, their heritage, their country, their past?

Is intent required, or is accident enough? Is knowledge required, or is ignorance enough? Is literacy required, or is illiteracy enough? Is venue important, or is audience enough? If no offense is intended, is not offense in the mind of the offended?

Humans develop “cultures” through which they socialize and manage living together. What is considered acceptable, even preferable, in one culture may be “taboo,” “sinful,” or “mortal” in another.

So, while it is important to understand the consequences of words and actions when “In Rome,” it is equally important for others to understand the consequences of words and actions when they are in our “Rome.”

Diplomacy is, in part, acting in ways that do not confuse or aggravate members of another culture. But how much accommodation must members of a culture make for “others?”

I can remember the “Ugly American” reputation we may well have earned by being oblivious to the customs of other cultures. But where should we draw the line and say, “you must accept our customs if you want to be with us?”

Americans have been xenophobic for our entire history. The world from which and into which we were spawned demanded suspicion and wariness on penalty of death or enslavement. “You’re not from around here, are you?” has been the warning we give others who visit our homeland when they show ignorance of our customs. It is human nature to form enclaves of others who share our culture, within a larger society. We know that some things are allowed within our enclaves that are frowned upon and even punished outside of these boundaries.

So what is this recent clamor about “offending” people who do not share our culture? Why do we care so much, and give such moral weight to actions and words that are “normal,” “natural,” even humorous to us, performed in our country, completely legal in every way, under our laws, that happen not to comply with the customs, values, and mores of other cultures? After all, where are we? In America. As long as our words and actions are not against our laws, I believe the First Amendment of our Constitution applies.

If I visit a foreign culture, I need to learn what is acceptable there. Certainly, I would be offended by public amputations in a land where that is the law, but I have no right to lambast those people for offending me.

We Americans have gone from confident and ignorant to timorous and diffident. We are becoming so hypersensitive that we are abrogating our own citizens’ rights.

“Get off it!” I have no duty to worry about what others think or feel when I am within my rights. We have as much or more liberty and freedom than any culture in the world.

As the Fourth of July, our Independence Day, approaches, I say, exercise your rights – the rights our forebears earned with blood.

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