Gen Z: Stop getting offended!
Updated: May 11, 2022
On March 6, Time shared a video of author Irshad Manji arguing that we must do better to raise a less offended generation. "While more and more schools are teaching young people how not to be offensive, they also need to be teaching a new generation how not to be offended.”
Based on the title, I was half-expecting some Sinclair Broadcast Group production of a grouchy baby boomer yelling, "Listen up, liberal college snowflake!" However, I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually Manji proposing three things: giving offense is the price of diversity, we grow by engaging those with whom we disagree, and it's a life skill. She supports this by using her experiences as a Muslim, and engaging with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Of course, Time's choice of title, "Schools Need to Teach Young People How to Not Be Offended," caught me off-guard, as it was probably designed to. Although seemingly all online media appears to be clickbait-driven, I still fell for Time's headline and was immediately intrigued. However, Manji's usage of the term "offense" kind of brought me back. Her arguments about teaching people to listen to various perspectives and be willing to listen to diverse voices seemed to say that "offense," in this context, means more of a conflict with one's personal beliefs than being hurt by someone else's beliefs. She even gives a disclaimer at the end that "we shouldn't clam up whenever we encounter intolerance or outright hate. Of course, we should stand up to it." Although it can seem easy to differentiate views that merely contrast from ours from those that conflict with our morals, the line can get muddied quickly. Responding appropriately in the face of such offense can be even more difficult.
To break down the three pillars of Manji's proposal, the first is that giving offense is the price of diversity. Too often, we see cheap "diversity”, where a corporation, school, organization, or any group of people can tout diversity merely by ticking off some demographic checkboxes. These efforts have noble intentions, and they aren't necessarily illogical: by incorporating people of diverse backgrounds, we can expect to see diverse perspectives.
However, this categorical approach to diversity reduces individuals to their demographics and heralds them almost as if they are "mascots of this or that." There's no denying that characteristics such as race, socioeconomic background, and gender can all play pivotal roles in one's life experiences and shaping one's viewpoints, but people are much more complex than that. Especially in a university where we love to talk about our gender and racial diversity, I challenge you to look beyond those more superficial characteristics and take a deeper look into how an individual adopts whatever demographic they fit in, and how it weaves into a part of them, not their identity.
The second pillar — "we grow by engaging those with whom we disagree" — is perhaps the trickiest of the three, especially in today's polarized climate. It isn't that recognizing and understanding the existence of people whose beliefs differ from ours is hard, but that actively seeking out these conversations is hard. On campus, our Humanist League strives to engage the student body in events and discussions that provide a platform to present and exchange thoughts and beliefs. However, we have seen over the years the kinds of censorship or even hostility that can arise from outspoken political speakers regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. The riots in UC Berkeley in response to conservative speakers easily come to mind for some of us, but so too should incidents like the death threats that pushed Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to cancel future appearances after she criticized President Donald Trump in a commencement speech at Hampshire College. Regardless of one's stance on free trade or healthcare, these beliefs are usually held because one believes that it is the most effective or ethical method. We need to learn to understand that, although morality can play a role in ideology, the two are not interchangeable.
Finally, "it's a life skill." Our arguments in life aren't limited to "is a hot dog a sandwich?" or "does pineapple go on pizza?" (to which I would have to answer "yes" and "no," respectively). Again, it's tough, and too often are we told to shy away from these kinds of conversations. They can get touchy and derail, so avoiding them altogether is safer. However, safer is not always better. Understanding the complexity of individuals can help us get to know others and even appreciate others even more.
This three-minute clip was a pleasant surprise, although I am disappointed in myself that I fell for a title that was more inflammatory than was needed. Learning to not be defensive in the presence of conflict is essentially fighting a well-ingrained instinct, but it is a vital skill, and something that I hope that can be instilled in future generations. It's easier than ever to be stuck inside an echo chamber exacerbated by online algorithms and falsities in the news, but, on the flipside, it is so much easier to branch out. Information is more readily available online. Factors like distance are not nearly as burdensome when it comes to engaging and maintaining contact with others. It may be easier to stick with just scrolling through whatever Facebook spits out for us, but we can all take steps to challenge our beliefs and become more intellectually well-rounded.