09/21/2012 01:32 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

The Thin-Skinned Populace

Co-written with Robert J. Hughes

Unless you've been lucky enough to be living under a rock, or maybe in your own survivalist shelter in the middle of nowhere, you've seen many news reports of how a cheaply made amateur video that mocked Islam has led to murderous uprisings in the Islamic world.

It's not over. This week the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, ran cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed, in a move designed to highlight the importance of freedom of speech. This was in light of calls from around the world that governments or Internet providers or newspapers remove anything offensive online or in print that might somehow incite brutality among the violence-prone faithful. The French government plans to close embassies in 20 Arab countries on Friday as a preventive measure against outraged locals following the publication of the caricatures.

Among the many questions being asked around these rounds of Arab unrest driven by supposedly sensitive religious types (but perhaps led by terrorist groups) is one that's particularly pertinent: why is the Arab world so easily offended?

You could take that further, of course. People everywhere are easily offended nowadays, and angered by the points of view of others. If someone doesn't agree with us, then pow! They're idiots, or worse - they're infidels!

Let's look again at the Middle East for a moment. As Thomas Friedman pointed out in his New York Times column, the hypocrisy of those in the Middle East who are offended by what others say is rich. Factions within the Arab world insult other religions, other countries, other peoples, with impunity. And let's not forget the Taliban blowing up priceless Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 because somehow these benign, awe-inspiring religious images carved centuries ago in the mountains conflicted with the Taliban's ideas of what was proper or not. This from people who like to win arguments by massacring civilians.

Yet this isn't merely a West-versus Middle East, or West-versus East way of thinking. It's the nature of where we are now as a society. We have entered an age when people are defined more by their differences than by their similarities, by exclusion rather than by inclusion.

And this is during an era when the spirit of community is important. According to my new book Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future, which I wrote with Roy H. Williams we are now in well within a "We" cycle, which is defined by cooperation, transparency, a sense that working together is better than being a look-at-me egomaniac.

Our book posits that society shifts in cycles, or pendulum swings, every 40 years or so, from an individually centered "me" cycle to a more civic "we" one. And that some ten years or so within each cycle, people start to take things too far. That means that what starts out hopeful often ends in divisiveness.

Our current "We" cycle began in 2003. So we're reaching that point when people begin to think in terms of ideological "righteousness" - springing from any group gathered around a cause, religious or political or cultural (anti-Americanism, feeling offended by the slightest sense of injury to a perceived notion of God, for example). The inevitable result is judgmental legalism and witch-hunts - or the murderous storming of consulates and embassies.

Now, we all know that most people who are truly religious, and at ease with themselves and their faith, tend to brush off slights and insults. Really, what's the big deal? There are more important things to think about than being offended. Things such as helping other people, combating poverty, ending illiteracy and eradicating illness.

But, no - today what's important for many isn't the well-being of others. It's the sense of being offended. A lot of people find strength in feeling righteous. It's better than actually doing something useful. Why work to build when you can destroy?