Signal Virtue: The Most Offensive Game

Virtue: Am difficult to offend

Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 1,000 characters) about a time in your life when this positive trait or virtue contributed to or created a situation that had a positive impact on your life.
I am not sure I know what it means to be offended. Maybe I should look it up.

According to my MacBook Dictionary, “to offend” means “(1) to cause to feel upset, annoyed or resentful...be displeasing to... (2) commit an illegal act...break a commonly accepted rule or principle.” It comes from the Latin offendere, “to strike against.”

What kinds of things make me feel “upset, annoyed or resentful”? Bad-mouthing America as systemically flawed. Relentless jokes from my academic colleagues about Trump. Sermons about “white privilege.”

Do I take such strikes personally? Yes and no. I have in the past year or so realized how viscerally I identify as American, more particularly, American in the way that the Scots-Irish do. Not as “white” (God help us), but as Borderers and Rednecks distrustful of distant authority, more particularly, of Yankees a.k.a. Progressives.

This makes us prickly and willing to fight, but it also makes us believers in the responsibility of the individual to defend him- or herself and stand up for the truth. Which means believing in virtue and the need to be strong in the face of attack.

Almost nothing that my opponents over the past few months have written has offended me in the sense of making me feel resentful. Upset, yes. It is hard having long-time friends believe the worst of me based on Facebook exchanges about which they have heard secondhand.

(One in particular got a bit wild emoji-wise. I tried to stop it by deleting the thread--and was then accused of attacking the person who had attacked me on my own Facebook wall.)

But the whole point of academia is to practice having these difficult conversations about our ultimate values. It would be stupid of me to be offended by having colleagues talk about how much they love Marx (which they do). And yet, they are offended when I say we need to talk about how Christian values underpin our civilization.

I cannot afford to be offended under such circumstances if I want the truth to prevail.
Alternative outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, so that it might have turned out even better.
Define “better.”

Part of me wants to be famous and take on the crowd, but for better or worse I have been able to de-escalate most situations in which I have found myself these past several months. Scots-Irish my ancestors may be, but I do not actually like conflict. Neither, however, do I like backing down.

Teeth. I know what I need is sharper teeth so that I am less tempted to apologize or otherwise weaken myself. It helps that I am a fencer. I know what it takes to stay calm in a bout.

You have to stay focused, no matter how your opponent tries to get in your head. She can wave her blade around, scream, and question the referee all she likes. Your job is to keep your point on target and set up your attack.

But it is not enough simply to win. You need her, you need your opponent in order to have a bout. If you beat her too easily--or embarrassingly--she won‘t play anymore, just as she won’t want to play with you if you have a fit.

How much of the Oppression Olympics we’ve been witnessing is pure kabuki theater, not sport at all? There is a great deal of Sturm und Drang, but what changes? Another professor loses his or her job...and then what? Is the goal to run out of the academy everyone who might possibly disagree?

What happens if we refuse to play? Do the screamers and self-identified victims go away? Or is it better to allow ourselves to get sucked into the game lest we lose by not playing?

Theirs is not a game we can win except on their terms (playing victim), which means losing the game we would play (training in virtue). Their game vs. ours? Virtue or victimhood, that is the question.

Claiming to be offended by my colleagues’ embrace of Marx or their attacks on the values of Western civilization is a heads-they-win-tails-I-lose proposition. “Fuck your feelings,” as a certain Dangerous Faggot might say. Feeling offended is beside the point. The point is to stay calm, marshal our arguments, and set up the attack.

But we have to attack. You cannot win the bout by playing only defense.
Guidelines for general improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have improved things even more for yourself or others in that particular situation, please think about this virtue in more general terms. How could you work on capitalizing on this positive trait in general, so that you or others that you care about benefit as much as possible?
My game cannot be only defensive. I need to go on offense if I want to win. First, therefore, I have to want to win.

This in itself is hard. Winning means risking other people feeling envious. Winning means being willing to be the bitch. Winning means never fully belonging to the group. Winning means climbing the dominance hierarchy over people whom I have previously admired.

It’s funny. The only thing I have ever really wanted is to belong. We moved a lot when I was growing up, which made me in many ways a perpetual outsider. I always hated that, not having long-term friends. It was the thing that I hoped most of all to have overcome when I found myself in academia.

And now look where I am. Busily ostracizing myself for refusing to go along with the crowd. And by being willing to offend for the sake of the truth.

“Remember to laugh,” Milo told me back in February when I was facing my departmental colleagues in person for the first time after “coming out” in support of him.

“Don’t apologize, whatever you do. Stick to your guns,” Jordan told me when I learned what some of the students were saying about me this past month.

Laughing works. It disarms and comforts and has generally put my colleagues and students at ease when I talk with them. Not apologizing is equally important. I am cheerful, but I do not back down. I stay on guard, ready to take the opening when it comes. But I am not getting the touches I need in order to win.

I have to make a video, don’t I? I have to do the thing that frightens me most: let people see my face, hear my voice, and be able to comment on my appearance. If I want to win, I have to go on the attack, which means laying myself open to be hit.

It is always much more dangerous taking the offensive than playing defense. I much prefer the defensive game. Waiting for the attack and taking the parry.

But if you wait for the dragon to come to you, all that happens is it eats you. Time to practice giving offense. 
--From Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring: Virtues program.

Illustration: Trina Schart Hyman, for Margaret Hodges, St. George and the Dragon (1984). I wrote to Ms. Hyman back when I was growing up, and she wrote back to me and sent me a drawing of her daughter ice-skating with her boyfriend. I have never been shy about letting my heroes know how much I admire them.

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