It's not quite Purim yet, but it seems as though everyday could be Purim by reading the news. Recently, Iran claimed that the logo for the 2012 Olympics in London was racist because it resembled the word "Zion." They even threatened to boycott the games altogether. This is on top of the fact that Iranian athletes refuse to compete against Israelis. How completely obsessed with Jews does a culture have to be to find everything in life somehow connected to a "Zionist conspiracy"? Obviously, Iran's contention has nothing to do with being offended and everything to do with Jew-hatred. Nevertheless, this whole episode brought to mind how ridiculous taking offense can be.
It seems as though the world is often handcuffed by political correctness and hypersensitivity. As a result, people end up being offended by some of the strangest things. There are times when it's perfectly reasonable to be offended, but such situations happen less often than today's popular culture would have you believe. This has caused an adverse effect on interpersonal conduct overall. It's difficult - if not impossible - to improve our treatment of other people if they - or we - are constantly offended. There's almost no way to predict what may hurt another person's ego or sensibilities. We have to find a delicate balance between remaining true to our values and not hurting someone else.
Interpersonal conduct is a two-way street. For example, there is a principle followed by Orthodox Jews to avoid any physical contact with a member of the opposite sex, except for a spouse or close relatives. As a result, a secular Jewish woman might be offended if a religious Jewish man doesn't shake her hand. On the other hand (no pun intended), a religious Jewish woman might be offended if a secular Jewish man does shake her hand. This could easily turn into another instance of intra-Jewish divisiveness, but it doesn't have to be that way. It's a great opportunity to be clear and courteous. Politely state what you believe regarding this particular issue, agree or disagree, and respectfully move on with your life.
Ironically, there is an antidote to the problem of being easily offended, and it's something that many Jews recite three times a day. In the last paragraph of Shemoneh Esrei, it states (the following is an English translation): "To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; and let my soul be like dust to everyone." This line compels us to become less concerned about personal insults and more concerned with God-based goodness. The less we care about our egos, the more we will be able to focus on improving our character. If we were to defend ourselves every time someone said or did something that bothered us, we wouldn't be able to do anything else.
Unfortunately, people tend to personalize things that were never meant to be taken personally. Therefore, it would be wise to give others the benefit of the doubt unless it's absolutely clear that something is being done out of malice. Being sensitive is perfectly understandable; being hypersensitive can drive a person insane. Life may be about the details, but it's also about not sweating the small stuff. We should train ourselves to be a little more desensitized about things that might offend us and a little more sensitive about that which may offend others. Or, to put it another way:
"We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it."
- Abraham Lincoln