“I don’t mean to offend. I’m genuinely curious.”
I found myself saying that a lot recently. One time was when I asked my friend from Alabama whether her area was conservative in comparison to the liberal school that is Penn; another time was when my friends and I were talking about growing up with parents of drastic ideological differences.
In hindsight, I am unsure why I felt obligated to preface my words with that statement since I was asking out of curiosity with no ill will whatsoever. Most of us must have found ourselves withholding our remarks because we do not want to say something that might offend others, even if our intentions are perfectly innocent.
So why are we becoming more afraid to make potentially controversial comments? In their book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt opine that, as a society, we are increasingly inclined to be “assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible.” Upon hearing a controversial comment, instead of assuming that it was an unintentional slight, we are more likely now to engage in an emotional response and draw the conclusion that “someone has committed an act of aggression” against us.
When we are on the verge of making a comment, we think to ourselves: “How will others interpret my words?” If we draw the conclusion that others will assume the worst of our intentions from experience, we are less likely to make those comments. Sometimes that can be good as we can always be more thoughtful about how we speak and what we say. The moment of pensive pause has certainly given us the capacity to be more considerate in our choice of language.
However, the fear of offense and being canceled can also deter constructive conversations. Whether it be classroom discussions or cafeteria chitchats, challenging conversations often take courage to hold and are bound to provoke discomfort. While it is important to ensure a certain level of safety in engaging with challenging topics, we must also not reject discomfort and overemphasize hesitancy. Discomfort resides in the intersection where different ideologies meet and, with any luck, compromise to reach understanding. Without discomfort, social and ideological progress can hardly be made.
I do not wish to argue that words do not matter, because they certainly do. Our employment of language should grow and reflect our changes and progress as a society. We should be thoughtful about what we say and how we say it. However, as the audience, when we hear something that does not necessarily reflect the values of our community, we should not immediately jump to reduce the speaker to bigotry. Doing so may be unjust and arbitrary when the person harbors no ill will. After all, as Lukianoff and Haidt write, “A faux pas does not make someone an evil person or an aggressor.”
Granting a charitable assumption of intent does not legitimize the comment. Rather, it provides the opportunity for constructive conversations to resolve the discomfort. Instead of immediately labeling the person as a bigot and putting up a shell of safety around ourselves every time we hear a controversial comment, a better response might be to assume that their intentions are innocent and try to engage them so that they realize how their language might be offensive to certain individuals. In doing so, we do not position ourselves against each other on multiple ends of the ideological compass, but rather come together and reach an area of understanding.
Some may argue that when one person’s language creates a negative impact, then that impact automatically exceeds their intent in terms of importance, regardless of how innocent they may be. It is certainly the easy thing to do to reject one person or one ideology completely and reside in our comfort zones. However, that approach is not only unproductive but also unjust. We may not agree with different ideologies, but there is nothing wrong with discussing them and understanding their rationale. Furthermore, how we treat one another is one of the most representative markers of who we are as a community. If we completely cancel someone due to an innocent faux pas, then we must ask ourselves, how does that reflect our communal values?
Assuming the best of intentions takes courage, kindness, and patience. It can be hard to do, though when done it can encourage constructive conversations and create more understanding between people who are conventionally positioned against each other. I am all for being more conscious of what we say and how we say it, but overemphasis can be unproductive for us as a community when we are trying to take steps forward. After all, there is no better representation of who we are as a community than how we treat each other. So the question is, do we want to be a community that shuts off conversations and rejects someone because of one faux pas, or do we want to be one that takes up courageous conversations and embraces discomfort?
JESSE ZHANG is a College and Wharton sophomore studying marketing and communication from Shenzhen, China. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.