Don’t Cry “Offensive!” – Part One


April 18, 2013 by lucieromarin

“I didn’t have any interest in ‘The Da Vinci Code”, he said, ‘I mean, like, it has Tom Hanks in it. But yesterday I was walking past a church, and it had a sign up saying ‘An Apple a Day Keeps the Da Vinci Code Away,’ and I thought, right, okay, that makes absolutely no sense, and, like, huh? So now I have to see the movie just to see what the fuss is about. I have to see what could make people put up a line like that.”

Hurray! I thought (not sincerely.) Yet another person driven to something by a protest against it!

The world being what it is, and we being what we are, encounters with offensive words and actions are inevitable, especially when it comes to film, literature, and art. It’s a source of irritation to some conservative Christians to find that their protests against offending parties are often met with indifference or with a repeat offence, and this is usually interpreted as a sign that everyone else is in the grip of Satan and has a committed agenda against us.

But this isn’t true. I mean, it’s true that some people are in the grip of Satan and some have an agenda and some are both, but it’s not the whole truth, and it’s not the reason why declaring ourselves offended often meets with derision rather than apology. Why? Because there’s more than one kind of person in the world, which means there’s more than one motive, more than one understanding, more than one agenda, and more than one interpretation of other people, including us.

The response to ‘This is offensive!’ has almost nothing to do with whether or not you’re a member of the True Church and have the zeal of the martyrs. It has everything to do with which category the offending party (or the person who hears your protestation) falls into. A person can be one who:

1) Has set out to offend you;

2) Hasn’t set out to offend you, but doesn’t particularly care about your feelings;

3) Hasn’t set out to offend you, does care about your feelings, but genuinely doesn’t really understand why you’re hurt;

4) Is afraid of offending you and hopes to avoid it.

This is why you have to know your audience before you stage any kind of protest, whether it’s one-on-one in a tea-room or outside a cinema with a placard.

1) If someone has set out to offend you, your protest rewards his efforts. You say, “I am offended.” He says, “Hurray!” (and notes to self: must try this again next time!)

2) If someone doesn’t really care what you think or feel, your protest is doomed to go unheard. You say, “I am offended.” He says, “Whatever,” (and notes to self: aggrieved weirdo.)

3) If someone well-meaning remains mystified by your behaviour and opinion, then the stammering apology or retraction that follows your “I am offended!” does not mean you’ve built a bridge or saved a soul. It means that someone now thinks, ‘Gosh, those people offend easily. Weirdos.’

This is an important point. Mystifying people doesn’t help them. I know that God knows what your Rosary and placard mean – but a protest is meant to send a message to other human beings. And I know it’s terrible to talk as though we must think in marketing terms, but that’s the reality. Slogans have to work, or they’re bad slogans. Placards are meant to be intelligible to people who don’t have years of faith behind them.

4) If someone is really afraid of you…you need to go to Confession, or think about the Incredible Hulk and whether or not you really want to be him.

See, there are only three reasons why you’d want to avoid offending someone:

1) Common courtesy

2) You like the person or group

3) You fear the person or group

And, sorry, but everyone knows we’re not going to bomb any embassies any time soon, so until we recover our ability to stage Church-wide boycotts, offended Catholics are not going to look scary. They’re just going to look like people in a huff. And this looks silly.

“Well, fine, Lucy,” I hear you say, “but are you actually suggesting we never stand up for the faith when we encounter blasphemy? Or nasty jokes at work? Or immoral entertainment?”

No, I’m not suggesting this! And I’m certainly not suggesting that, when asked directly about it, that we lie. What I do want to assert is that using the concept of offense as a tactic is only useful if your target audience cares if you’re offended. And people don’t care if we’re offended. So it’s not useful. In any case, there are two other – and better – reasons to avoid focusing on the offensiveness of something in our responses to it:

1) It makes the issue about our feelings. But these issues aren’t about our feelings; they’re about objective problems in things. Talking about how shocked or offended you are turns the mind inwards, and makes the subjectivity of emotion the primary consideration. It walks staight into the concept that the validity of a thing’s existence is related to how many people approve of it. Bad! Bad! Bad!

2) Situations involving an offensive statement or action – or, especially, an artwork – are often only symptoms of some deeper problem. If we took care of that problem, the surface issue would go away by itself. I mean, did it occur to no one to worry about the fact that, however many people there were who took their opinions from ‘The Da Vinci Code’, that’s how many people there are who think that what they see in movies is real?

Well, it’s easier to tear down than to build, and I know it’s unfair of me simply to judge other people’s attempts to do right, and to say only, “Don’t go on about things being offensive, and don’t stage protests that no one is going to understand.”

So, in the next post, I’ll try to propose some alternatives.



2 thoughts on “Don’t Cry “Offensive!” – Part One

  1. Maria says:

    Hmm….food for thought no doubt…..and will have to read the next post, that is for sure. I do believe that there are many different ways of dealing with offensive material. I also believe that by saying, in a simple, non dramatic way: “that is offensive”, a point has been made. Should the hearer then actually pursue that remark, then good. If not, then at least I have made a stand..and perhaps will not be associating anymore with them…depending upon how offensive the material was. I have seen a remarkable example of this in a classroom. It involved a group of friends, slowly disbanding as a result of quite offensive material having been posted on the net by one of the students on their social network. Within a week, a group of 9 students, fell to 2. The 2 were devastated and couldn’t understand why they were being abandoned. After some reflection, a superficial apology was made…but youth, being always able to detect janus-faced people left the two to their own ways…and carried on without them.
    Perhaps one will say: “well, there you have the offender brooding..God knows what will happen later on as years progress”. This is what we see with terrorism, brooding contempt.
    Solution? (I’ll have to read the next post!!)
    I agree with you, there seems to always be a deeper problem lurking beneath the offensive behaviour…but a gentle, stern response of: that is offensive, I think, is always necessary…and if it means we stand alone, then so be it. If it means that the offender is ostracised, then so be it. We cannot hide the fact that we are offended, nor should we. But I’m off to read your following post..
    thank you for posting it…food for thought…

    • lucieromarin says:

      Yes – I think the key is in your choice of words ‘simple’ and ‘non-dramatic.’ Staying calm and exercising your right to express a viewpoint is definitely not the same as getting in a huff or making a great flourish that the other party isn’t going to understand. And I’m glad those students were able to recognise a false apology when they saw one!

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