Why not taking offence will make you – and the world – better
Unthinkable: Donald Trump may make your skin crawl but your anger ‘destroys you’ not him, argues Brant Hansen
‘Studies show we often confuse being angry with actually doing something. We think, “I took a stand on Twitter,” and then we move on,’ says Brant Hansen, author of Unoffendable. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Are people more prone to taking offence these days? Even asking that question has the potential to cause offence.
“Oh, here we go again,” you may think, “another article on the snowflake generation.”
Well, sorry. I am about to mention not only “snowflakes” – those individuals who take every challenge to their beliefs as a personal slight – but also (trigger warning!) the rise of identity politics. Moreover (risking further brickbats) I’m going to bring God into the conversation.
But, first, is prickliness on the rise? The election of such a thin-skinned US president as Donald Trump is an indication of the way “taking offence” has become central to democratic politics.
As the Australian author Richard King has written “politics is increasingly a matter not of reasoned argument but of identification”. Civic debate more and more resembles a playground argument over who is in which gang.
How do we overcome this?
Brant Hansen, a Christian radio presenter who works with the faith-based medical charity Cure International, has a very old-fashioned but potentially liberating solution: “Recognise our current state, and then replace the shock and anger with gratitude.”
His book Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better seeks to remind Christians of Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness and self-control. But Hansen’s core message – that anger should not be confused with action – deserves to be heard by everyone. And it might just set you free.
Some people believe taking offence is a moral duty. There is a view within Christian or religious circles, for example, that becoming offended is an expression of your piety or faith. How do you respond to this view?
“I respond by throwing a tantrum. Seriously, that view is certainly the widely held one. I’m arguing for something that’s counter-intuitive, and certainly counter to the view of ‘righteous anger’ I grew up with in Christian culture.
“I simply can’t find the idea of human ‘righteous anger’ in scripture. Yes, God’s anger is righteous, but He is sinless. He can be trusted with it. We are told, over and over, to rid ourselves of it. Right now.
“Anger is a natural reaction for humans, and we’re equipped with it for fight-or-flight. But harbouring it, and thinking we’re entitled to it, is at odds with forgiveness. Yes, this sounds absolutely crazy to people . . . at first.
Through your charity work, however, do you not get angry at witnessing poverty? Do you not get offended by people’s wealth or selfishness in the developed world?
“I’ve had to battle this. Travelling with Cure, visiting so many countries, I get to see kids with correctable disabilities healed. But there are so many others we could heal, if we had the resources.
“I try to convince American Christians to give even a tiny bit, and many just aren’t interested. It’s tough to take.
“But no, I don’t think harbouring anger, even in this case, is righteous. Why? Even if other people are sinners and selfish, well, so am I. Jesus told a brilliant story about a servant who was forgiven a huge debt, but wouldn’t forgive someone else a small one. That story didn’t end well for the one who wouldn’t forgive.
“I have to be patient with people, to forgive people, not because they ‘deserve it’, but because God has forgiven me.
“Besides, am I giving everything to heal all these children? There’s a lot more I can do, too. I need not concern myself with trying to control others. I’m not even doing a great job of controlling myself.”
Have you any advice for people who are physically or emotionally repulsed by the Donald Trump presidency?
“To me, President Trump perfectly captures our ‘righteous anger’ era. He’s all about anger . . . and so are his bitter enemies.
“I’d say this to people reacting to President Trump, or anyone who might be tripping your anger wires: if you are truly concerned about injustice, your anger is not the asset you think it is. Anger inhibits clear-mindedness. This is why we ask the very people who are tasked with justice – police, courts, etc – not to act out of anger, but to act.
“In the book, I write about studies that show we often confuse being angry with actually doing something. We think, ‘I took a stand on Twitter,’ and then we move on. Oddly, we’re less likely to act if we’ve struck a public pose. What we need is actual sacrifice. I want to be a man of action, not a man of anger.
“People wonder, ‘How can I do anything if I don’t get angry?’ and I point to people like Martin Luther King, jnr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who acted tactically and relentlessly, all the while completely rejecting the idea that harbouring anger is Biblical.
“By the way, I’d add for the person angry with Donald Trump: You know what? Your anger doesn’t destroy Donald Trump. It destroys you.”
Young adults today have been categorised in some quarters as belonging to a “snowflake generation” – a hallmark of which is that they are quick to take offence. Do you think there is any truth to this?
“I suspect this is true, and it’s the result of what’s been modelled for them. They’ve been brought up thinking that taking offence is the sign of being a thoughtful, high-minded person.
“That said, I’ve found, when speaking to Christian groups of college students or young adults, that they’re pretty quick to adopt what I’m arguing for in Unoffendable. Philosopher Dallas Willard said that anger is the American Christian’s foremost problem, and that we haven’t been ‘taught out of it’.
“It’s shocking to be presented with another way, of living and it’s utterly counter-cultural. It’s humbling to live this way. But wow, is it refreshing.”
Ask a sage:
Question: Has the world gone bad or mad?
Noam Chomsky replies: “Individually, these international leaders are certainly not stupid. However, in their institutional capacity their stupidity is lethal in its implications.”