Mind Matters: Being offended

I read that actor Rose McGowan said she was deeply offended by the dress another actor, Natalie Portman, wore to the Academy Awards ceremony.

I will spare you the details of what offended McGowan. I am more interested in the frequency with which people nowadays are deeply offended.

The last time I felt deeply offended was decades ago when a student of mine in the US told me in my office that on one specific aspect of behaviour modification I did not know what the h*%# I was talking about in class.

I realised later that he was correct, but his manner of commenting still left me offended. A year later the student gave me a book, through another academic, as a form of amends. The book was a psychology dictionary. Perhaps the student thought I could benefit by reading it.

As I watched a documentary about singer/songwriter Taylor Swift, I realised that she had offended many people by being hugely successful and very thin. Some people hated her and posted ugly comments about her on social media. Her response was to withdraw from public life for a year.

The same negative public response happened years ago to singer Phil Collins. He wrote and recorded hit after hit, and then he experienced great hostility from various individuals. They were sick of him; they felt offended by his existence.

I wonder what leads various people to hate certain celebrities. Envy is the obvious explanation, but I sense there is more to it. We live in a cancel culture, where we boycott or severely criticise individuals who offend us.

Social media use makes it easy to do so. Once a few individuals state how offended they are, others jump on the bandwagon. Pummelling someone online as part of a group is more fun and safer than criticising the person to his or her face.

Politicians are often the target of social outrage. Scott Morrison is in the target zone in Australia. Donald Trump is ScoMo's parallel in the US.

On the positive side, we in the western world have the liberty to pour hate of an individual into social media. In many countries, those who criticise the wrong person end up in jail.

We forget that these are humans we publicly despise. They have feelings. Even the thick-skinned politicians.

I have never been successful enough to be loathed by large numbers of people. Maybe I have been lucky.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of New England.