Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development contains an idea he called Adolescent Egocentrism. During this stage, we often see a heightened sense of importance, which is why teenagers can act as if the world revolves around them. Adolescent Egocentrism surfaces in Formal Operational, the final stage of childhood development before reaching adulthood. During this period, abstract concepts like love, beauty, freedom, and morality start to take shape. This stage can last for years, but most people only complete development in this stage in areas of strongest interest, which is why we are a nation of self-obsessed, intolerant people. The egocentrics of America.
Consider the very definition of abstract thinking in relation to the ideas presented in “Come, Let Me Offend You.” An abstract thinker can consider multiple points of view, but in this piece, the author gives countless examples of objections to the opposition. Could they not, faced with staunch veganism, understand that level of compassion? Having offended, we are presented with an opportunity to learn and grow, but often, the moment is seen as a need to go on the defensive, protecting our point of view at all costs. The author asks, “…is there anything left to have an opinion on these days besides the weather?” but they have missed the point. It is when we forget that different opinions can exist in the same space that we start on the path to extreme intolerance.
At the end of the piece, a reference is made to the emperor of intolerance himself, Hitler. It is easy to jump to extremes when speaking about prejudice, but we are finally realizing that we have centuries of systemic biases to unlearn. Fascism and judgment are two sides of the same coin. How do so many of us continue to grow without gaining the ability for cognitive empathy? The divide grows wider with every small annoyance in the face of offense. “Now, wait a minute. There’s a concept. Why don’t you wear your agenda on your sleeve, literally?” the author writes. But this suggestion is not to facilitate a conversation about these so-called agendas, but so that we can avoid the conversation, or person, completely. From there, stereotypes are formed and all hope of understanding a differing point of view is lost.
The irony of this article is that it was most likely written by someone who has benefited from systemic scaffolding insulating their privileged experience. We cannot know for sure since its author is “Newsweek Staff,” but the clues are there. Through the lens of our new anti-racist learning, consider the kind of person who might believe that their opinion is more valuable than another’s. Another way to say, “…but wasn’t there a time when the goal was not to notice the things that set us apart?” is “I don’t see color.” (Because I don’t have to.) The type of person who, because of their ego, can only consider experiences relevant to the life they have lived.
Consider a nation instead where intolerance is replaced by curiosity. Then, if the badges, pins, and stamps the author writes about were a reality, we might truly be able to use them to build bridges between our internal prejudices or lack of awareness and someone else’s experience. Adults seem to be baffled by the behavior of teenagers, but so many of us are still stuck in that same developmental phase. We live inside the narrative that our experiences are unique and special and that we should seek to be understood rather than to understand. Cutting through the isolation familiarity can breed will help create the utopia we all claim to want, but along the way, we need to be able to learn and grow when we offend.