Of all the things that weary my soul so much these days, top of the list is the modern tendency to look for reasons to be offended.
It’s part of that poisonous web of political correctness that’s being woven around all human interactions, where people can’t make jokes anymore, they can’t just be ‘them’ any more, they can’t ask honest questions, they can’t say what they really think, what they really feel.
Because that might offend someone.
I’m not cheerleading for nasty language, or insults or put-downs, by the way, not at all. Onaas devarim, or negative speech, is a very big deal halachically, and we Jews have so many rules governing the proper way to try to communicate with other people.
But the halachot governing speech are a million miles away from the political correctness that’s poisoning modern communication, and making more and more of our daily interactions a burden and drag.
The first one is dealing with personal attacks and put downs on people themselves, which is clearly a function of bad middot, and is something that needs to be addressed.
But the second is an attack on ideas.
Political correctness is trying to shut down the discussion of ideas, the free exchange of knowledge, the challenging of assumptions, the ability to enable people to think for themselves, even if that’s sometimes awkward and imperfect.
We can’t discuss whether ‘feminist’ and ‘orthodox’ goes together, because that might offend someone. We can’t say that there shouldn’t be so much emphasis put on externals because that might offend someone. We can’t suggest Israel is the best place for Jews to live, or that Palestinians who fire rockets at civilians in Israel, or shoot small Jewish children, or stab Jews to death just because they are Jews are terrorists, because that might offend someone.
And so, the list of possible offenses grows longer and longer, and the topics that it’s safe to talk about grows smaller and smaller, and the ability to communicate in a real, sincere way totally dries up, because it’s just safer that way.
And it’s not just a ‘society’ problem or a ‘community’ problem, it’s also – very much – a family problem, a parent and child problem, a husband and wife problem.
We can’t ask non-observant seder guests to bring something to say at the Seder because that might offend them… Our kids can’t tell us that we’re bothering them, or annoying them, or upsetting them, for fear of offending us… We can’t tell our spouse that we suspect they are drinking too much at the Kiddush club on Shabbos, or working too hard, or not behaving correctly in case we offend them.
And they probably also feel they can’t tell us, that we’re too bossy, to selfish, too self-pitying, too demanding.
The list of potential egg shells goes on and on, and so it’s easier to just stay plastic, stay in the comfort zone, and to keep pulling that fake smile tighter and wider.
If you play by the rules of the politically-correct crowd.
And thank God, I can’t do that.
I make mistakes, I’m not always as tactful as I could be (supposing that tact can actually be learnt and developed), I sometimes phrase things a little OTT – but I prefer that a million times over to being too scared to speak to others, too scared to write anything real for fear I might offend someone.
Modern discourse has become so plastic and superficial because we’re all just waiting for that first mentally-disturbed ‘snowflake’ to start throwing a public hissy fit because they were offended by something we said – or didn’t say – or something we did – or didn’t do.
And that fear of not measuring up to politically correct perfection is keeping us all tongue-tied, repressed and miserable.
Or at least, almost all of us.
Thank God, there are still a few people out there who are bucking the trend, and saying what needs to be said. Rabbi Bassous in Golders Green is one of them. Rav Berland in Jerusalem is another.
But it’s certainly getting harder and harder for the average person to speak freely in the world, and to discuss and debate the ideas and assumptions that really need airing out. And so, my soul is getting more and more wearied by all the interactions that have to be so carefully policed in case I offend someone, chas v’halila¸by saying something they disagree with or don’t like.
But I’m not giving up.
At least, not yet.
Every diss is a diamond. So I’m willing to keep getting insulted if it means I can try to keep moving things forward, and to keep doing my bit to stop everyone turning into not-so-fantastic-plastic.