I was digging into a new novel on the patio outside Nicoletti’s a few weeks back when a single word in a nearby conversation caught my attention: divestment.
The pair — a guy and girl, both college-aged and bespectacled, sipping coffee and picking at muffins — was sitting directly behind me. Not one to eavesdrop, I tried to find my place on the page in front of me, but before I could, I heard the word again. Divestment.
“I can’t believe they took it off the table again,” the girl was saying.
“I know,” the guy said. “I’m personally offended. It just goes to show how the ignorance in the …”
Words kept coming out of his mouth after that, but I found myself suddenly engrossed and mulling over that two-word phrase. Personally offended? Offended … personally? What the fuck does that even mean?
I set down my book and twisted around in my seat. “Excuse me? Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help but notice that you’re taking things way too seriously. You’re personally offended that the Senate struck down the divestment bill? Well, the thing is, that actually had nothing to do with you. Yeah. Really. Most of them don’t even know your name. They were actually voting on a monetary investment and the implications it may or may not have for a complicated foreign conflict. Voting it down wasn’t any more anti-Palestinian than voting it up would have been anti-Semitic. Frankly, I would have voted it down myself, not because I hate Palestinians, but because I think a college-level student council in California has pretty much zero jurisdiction over an international conflict thousands of miles away.”
I didn’t say any of that, of course. It belongs to the Perfect World of unsaid things I keep locked away in my mind through profuse lip-biting and fist-clenching. I finished chapter seven and stowed Stephen King’s Misery in the front pocket of my backpack, leaving the pair to bicker in peace on the patio in the bright May sunshine.
But even hours later, cooking dinner back in my apartment, I found myself ruminating over what I’d heard. Every once in a while there comes an issue like the divestment resolution that seems to really tear people up inside — ruining friendships, burning bridges — and no matter the outcome, animosity lingers for years to come. Regardless of my thoughts on the divestment issue itself, this phenomenon was what interested me the most:
When did we start taking things so goddamn personally?
It makes sense if you think about it. You lose sleep for the issue. You skip meals for the issue. You march and yell and stomp your feet for the issue. And sooner or later, somewhere along the smooth, slick road between commitment and obsession, you become the issue. You’re no longer John Doe speaking up about the divestment bill — you are the divestment bill, embodied in flesh and blood. In its own subtle, cunning way, your ego takes the reins.
This is the point of no return. In personalizing the issue, you eradicate your ability to think of it objectively. Flaws in your logic become flaws in your character. Dissenting opinions become personal attacks. The cause you’re advocating is a ship and you’ve tethered yourself inexorably to the mast.
Is this the new gold standard of commitment? Do we really have to bodyguard our issues, taking the bullets and shrapnel directed at them ourselves? Politicians reminisce on the days when vehement Senate floor debates were followed by beers and conversation in the Capitol Lounge, and a Republican inviting a Democrat over for dinner was more likely an attempt at socialization than poisoning. In those days, it took more to break a friendship than differences in ideology.
Today, things are different. An issue like abortion leaves us divided and embittered, accusing one another of murder and misogyny. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and before you’ve even finished reading this sentence, that statement has generated an automatic presupposition in your mind about the kind of person I am. Maybe you think I’m compassionate and reserved. Maybe you think I’m callous and naïve. Either way, you’re making the crucial mistake of judging me rather than the statement I made.
This trend is most transparent in our politics. Election season airtime is flooded with negative campaign ads designed to attack the opponent’s personal and moral credibility. A strong platform might win an election, but a weak handshake ensures a loss. We care more about the minutia of a candidate’s personal life — his ethnicity, his marriage, his fitness, his faith — than the concrete solutions he brings to the table. We’d rather have a president with good posture and white teeth than a president with the skills to get things done.
More and more, I’m starting to believe that this trend will never change. We seem incapable of separating our feelings about an issue from our feelings about each other. Maybe we’re vain and hopelessly egotistical or maybe the issues of the 21st century are simply too close to heart. Either way, the only thing we’ll ever accomplish by placing each other on the chopping block is greater polarization. Constructive criticism is all but an oxymoron in the modern age. We design our arguments like we design our weapons: to maximize efficiency and destructive potential.
So if you’re personally offended by what I’ve just said, don’t be. Be intellectually, ideologically and critically offended. Leave your character at the door.
Mark Strong: taking your offense personally since 1993.
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