Level 1: I am offended at what you said.
Level 2: I am offended that you took offense at what I said.
Level 3: I am offended that you would imagine that my taking offense is the truly offensive aspect of this scenario.
Level 4: I am offended that you are so offended that I would be offended by your being offended.
We could go on, but let’s stop here for a moment and analyze. Level 1 is obviously the most natural and straightforward. Level 2 is also relatable, though more specialized. I can recall times when I was admittedly in the wrong and nonetheless felt legitimately aggrieved that the person’s response was disproportionate.
What’s puzzling, however, is that Level 2 is apparently growing in popularity by the day. This increase of recursive offense seems to stem from what one calls “political correctness” — i.e., the fact that we are now expected to take seriously and account for the feelings of groups who could previously be casually slandered with impunity. The truly offensive thing in this scheme isn’t what I said, it’s that you people are allowed to respond. Why, back in my day, etc.
Where we’re starting to lose people is Level 3: namely, the position that deploying meta-offense to “politically correct” incursions is actually more offensive than being forced to recognize that someone else has been offended, and indeed more offensive than the original occasion of offense itself. While I agree with this position and actually think it may count as urgent to get the message out, the extremely “meta” nature of the complaint is bound to confuse and alienate less invested bystanders.
Yet I think there is a possible strategic advantage to staking out Level 3 whenever possible, using it as a kind of judo attack. While we are likely to lose some people initially, I believe that people inclined toward the Level 2 move will generally rise to the bait and go in for the truly convoluted and incomprehensible Level 4. The number of people who would be turned off by this dispiriting performance is likely greater than the number of people turned off by our invocation of Level 3. Indeed, it is likely that once goaded into taking a Level 4 position, the former adherent of Level 2 will be unable to shut up about it and will reveal their addiction to being offended, being “the real victim,” etc., etc. Whatever goodwill the Level 2 move generated will quickly be exhausted, leaving bystanders to wonder: Hey, maybe those Level 1 people had a point? Maybe Level 2, despite its objections to the oversensitivity and prickliness of others, is the true case of unjustified sensitivity? Maybe the much sought-after “real victim” is the actual victim of the initial offense, rather than the person who caused the offense?
And maybe Level 3 has a point, too? Should I just always go with odd-numbered levels of offense recursion? Yes, that will be my rule of thumb: odd-numbered levels of recursion all the way.