22 May 2024

The 'itch to be offended' is undermining civil society, US writer says

5:52 am on 22 May 2024
Op-Ed columnist, The New York Times, Frank Bruni

Op-Ed columnist, The New York Times, Frank Bruni Photo: NEILSON BARNARD

The age of grievance is being fuelled by an "itch to be offended" in modern culture and it is undermining democracy, US writer Frank Bruni says.

New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni says grievance culture is driving political division and eroding civility, and the willingness to compromise.

He looks at the causes and argues that humility is the antidote in his new book, The Age of Grievance.

People invent grievances where they do not exist, Bruni told Afternoons, thereby diverting attention from matters of genuine concern.

"We just kind of jumbled together complaints that we needn't be making with urgent matters. And I think it is, certainly in the United States right now, a pox on our democracy and a pox on our civil discourse.

"There is this insistence on being offended. this itch to be offended, that I don't entirely understand. And that I think, is a very destructive thing for a culture and to society," he said.

Harry and Megan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, went from speaking up about genuine injustice to a "woe is me" narrative, he said.

"They had an important point to make, and they made it very well at the outset about racism and how it had subjected Megan, and both of them, to a kind of treatment that they would not have been subjected to If she had not been a person of colour.

"But as they went on their exit tours, they went on their extravagant, elaborate, Netflix deal, Oprah interview media tour, there was a kind of persistent and at times overall 'woe is us' aspect to it. Their complaints ranged far beyond the bigotry, the racism to which she and they were subjected and encompassed things like their royal cottage really had a low ceiling and wasn't that comfortable."

Consequently, people began to dismiss them, he said.

"And to see them as unattractive people absolutely emphatic about, and addicted to, self-pity.

"And when that happened, the really important part of what they were doing, what they began to be doing in terms of the exposure of racism, that got lost."

He also took aim at what he called "grievance entrepreneurs," who look at the world through a single lens.

He said an example was when basketball player Brittney Griner was imprisoned in Russia.

"She was horrifically and unjustly imprisoned in Russia and it was unclear whether or when she would get out,"

But some of the commentary was saying that because Griner was a woman of colour and gay, the Biden administration was ignoring her case.

"That was ridiculous. She was, by dint of being a celebrity, getting more public attention and more public statements from the Biden administration, than other political prisoners had gotten - far more.

"And so, when the grievance entrepreneurs tried to attach their arguments to circumstances where it's clearly not the case, they undermine the more important work they do.

"That's what happens when you mingle unimportant or overblown grievances with really important matters of justice."

A puritanism around language was pervading elements American life, he said.

"There's no forgiveness in it, there's no understanding of human nature.

"And there's just the assumption of an evil impulse, of a bad character, that when sometimes people just speaking sloppily, or they haven't gotten all the cues yet, there's this patrolling of language in general, that's just sort of ridiculous."

Organisations in the US have published lists of words and phrases that should not be used because they are offensive, he said.

"And one of the popular phrases that you see in these is don't use the phrases 'blind faith', don't use the phrase 'blind study', because that's deeply offensive to people with vision impairments.

"Okay, I'm half blind. I live with a 20 percent risk of going blind. And when I see the phrase blind study, or blind faith, I am not offended in the least because I understand the damned metaphor."

The antidote to this frothing indignance? Humility, he said.

"Humility means understanding that the collective good matters as much as my individual good, and that politics and government is a tricky, imperfect, constantly evolving process of trying to balance those two things.

"And humility means understanding that the world is not always going to conform or be tailored precisely to my liking. And that is not, in most cases a tragedy, it is just the way it is."