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From Vol. 4, Issue 9, September 2022

Offensive language and Stoicism


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“It is easy to say that one should not get offended when someone says something upsetting to you, but it can be difficult to do when it happens.”

Today, compassion seems to be considered a cardinal virtue by many. Compassion is a virtue to be sure, though it hinges upon other virtues such as truth and wisdom. One of the ways that this is manifested in the modern world is by being offended. Some insist that we should be conscious of what we say and how we say it, while others state that you can simply choose not to be offended. What would Stoicism say about such complicated and tangly matters?

Justice – the cardinal virtue

Recall that justice is a cardinal virtue, which obligates you to be virtuous for the rest of the world. At the heart of this is the idea that we all share in the divine and are equal in the eyes of Nature. Everyone deserves justice, and it is an important element in a Stoic lifestyle to be active in this regard. That certainly includes social justice, love, and kindness for everyone you interact with.

Stoicism promotes being kind to one another and being conscious of how certain mannerisms affect those around you so long as they are aligned with the cardinal virtues and truth. It may be “compassionate” to tell someone that they will never die, but that certainly doesn’t align with wisdom and truth, and so it would not be a Stoic action.

The dichotomy of control

When looking at getting offended about something through the lens of the dichotomy of control, it is easy to notice what may first appear as a contradiction in Stoic philosophy. What other people say is outside of your control, so Epictetus would encourage you not to get offended by it. But how does that align with the requirement to uphold justice?

What we have is a bit of a paradox – Stoics must not get upset about that which is outside of their control yet at the same time uphold justice such that others are less likely to get offended by things outside of their control. What this looks like in practice is correcting others when they say something about another person that comes off as harsh or offensive, but if someone says something harsh or offensive to you, you let it wash over you like water over a rock. Stoicism requires you to hold yourself to a high standard while being tolerant of others.

The truth dichotomy

It is easy to say that one should not get offended when someone says something upsetting to you, but it can be difficult to do when it happens. There are some tools that you can implement today to help bring proper perspective back in such situations.

First, ask yourself: is what they say true? If the statement is true, then you have some useful feedback which you can then use to implement positive change in your life. And anyway, how could one be offended by that which is true? Is the fact that trees have roots offensive, or that clouds are composed of water molecules? Truth cannot be offensive; it is simply the truth.

On the other hand, if it is untrue, then one can reason that the person is simply ignorant and misinformed. It is not offensive or upsetting to call a tree a rock; it’s simply untrue. Likewise, if someone says something to you or about you that isn’t based on fact, then why would you find it offensive? It may damage your reputation, but it does not damage your character, and that is a Stoic’s only focus.

On giving your power away

Another useful perspective is on giving your power away. If you allow yourself to get upset over hearing a certain word or phrase, then you are literally giving ~7 billion people the power to upset you. Is your peace of mind something that you want ~7 billion people to have control over, or is that a privilege that you would rather keep for yourself?

Closing remarks

The foundation of Stoicism is one of love for all mankind, and this is represented by the virtue of justice. We should absolutely be conscious of our effects on other people. At the same time, Stoics must also guard their own individual agency. What happens within you is absolutely within your control, after all, and as much as it may seem like someone else’s fault for upsetting you with certain words or phrases, the truth is that you get to choose in each situation whether or not you wish to be offended by such a thing.

Brandon is most well-known for his podcast, The Strong Stoic Podcast, where he discusses philosophical ideas both solo and with guests. He also coaches individuals to help them be their best selves, writes articles, plays music, manages projects, and several other things.