Don’t Cry “Offensive!” – Part Two

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April 21, 2013 by lucieromarin

Quick review: I’ve suggested that declaring repugnant words or actions offensive, and leaving it at that, is not the best tactic for conservative Christians. A protest only works where the offending party either likes or fears the protester, and, thus, is in some way invested in the offended party’s opinion. Thus, as no one cares whether or not we are offended, a protest framed in those terms won’t do us much good. In fairness, though, to people who do actually bother to stand up for things, I ought to suggest some alternatives to saying, “This is offensive to”. So here they are…

…sort of. First, the more I think about it, the more I realise that there is not one universally applicable response-action to which all Catholics can be bound. Why? Because the right response depends on so many different things: on whether the insult (to us or to God) is deliberate or accidental, whether it’s public or private, whether the target is God, or the Church, or Catholics in general, or just you or me; it depends on your temperament, on his temperament, on what we’re good at (some people are great at smart comebacks but lousy at grace-filled prayers of forgiveness, and vice versa) or on what the deeper problem is beneath the insult. This is why no one can ever tell you that you must attend a particular rally or sign a particular petition or so on. There’s no must about it. We’re obliged to stand up for our faith, yes; we’re also allowed to exercise prudence, and to decide for ourselves how we’ll do that. You are allowed to stage a protest and to invite me to join it. I am allowed to consider your protest an ineffectual waste of time and to write a pointed letter to someone instead. I am allowed to make reparation before the Blessed Sacrament. You are allowed to stay away from that prayer vigil so that your children can get their dinner, and to offer up prayer from the heart instead.

Despite this, I think there are some general thoughts which might help, and which I’ll outline here, with reference to deliberate and private offensive behavior. (I mean, say, workplace comments or conversations around tables, rather than blasphemous film, art and literature. That will be next.) I should say, first, however, that these thoughts are not borne of a glorious life spent winning souls; they’re borne of an inglorious life spent not knowing how to manage my temperament. My inner melancholic has not yet learned to do anything other than freeze and run away and cry when confronted with insult or aggression. This is partly because I’ve spent most of my time trying to train my inner choleric to respond to insult with something other than, “RAAAAAAAAAAH! KAPOW!” Truly. I used to whack people. Then I stopped whacking people and started listening to them instead, and that was better. So, general ideas:

1) Be more of a listener than a talker. You can think of it as charity or you can think of it as tactics or you can sing that little ditty about the wise old owl; however you approach it, it will do everyone good.

2) Be resilient. Don’t worry that, by failing to react to every piece of inappropriateness around you, you look like a pushover. You don’t. You just look like a person capable of functioning in a society which, to some extent, equates insult with a) wit and b) free speech.

3) Keep the reaction proportionate to the action. I get that blasphemy is such a great evil that it does kind of warrant dressing up as a crusader and charging about singing ancient hymns…and that’s fine, if you want God to be the only one who understands what you’re doing. However, if you want the offender to understand it too…

4) Speak the language of the person you want to correct. Responding to a bad joke with a pointed joke isn’t compromise; it’s expressing your opinion in terms the joker will understand.

5) So, know who you’re talking to. (This is where the listening comes in handy!). Offensive words and actions are like the vermin that gets into houses – they’re really only the symptom of deeper problems. There’s no point targeting your garbage bin if the problem is the neighbour upstairs, and there’s no point targeting him if the problem is the weather, and so on. So, know the person and look for the deeper problem – that will tell you how best to respond. To this end:

6) Is he sanguine? Sanguines are given to personal remarks, and it’s characteristic of them to enjoy teasing others about things that look funny to them. If your interlocutor is a sanguine, chances are he’s picking on your religion because there’s nothing noticeable about your clothing or your accent. And he thinks it’s funny – he genuinely doesn’t get that it can hurt, and this is particularly true of choleric-sanguines. To say, “That was hurtful,” to an untrained choleric-sanguine is an almost total waste of your time. They cannot understand this language, and will say only, “What? You big silly. Learn to take a joke.”

So, then, what do you say? Hope for witty riposte or a crushing one-liner. Smile – even if you do need to put your foot down. If you do want to say something serious, keep it short and snappy. Don’t waste one second of your life wondering if you should have made an earnest speech.

7) Is he broken? Very often, a statement like, “The foul foul filth Church foul filth priests and you’re filthing foul,” actually means, “Why did my father do that to me?” This person – to begin with, at least – needs a friend more than he needs a sermon. He needs to be listened to; if there’s a real hurt getting in the way of his relationship with God and his ability to not be freaked out by the Church, you’re not failing in your duty if you just let him vent. Remember how Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said that you can’t preach to a starving man; you have to feed him first? The same holds true of people who have been starved of love or childhood security. The broken person might slash at you like a psycho, but, if you look closely, you’ll see that he or she is really just like a homeless cat huddled in a doorway, lashing out at anything because it’s half-crazed with hunger.

Now, obviously, if this person is going to be some kind of friend, you have the right to say your piece from time to time, or to expect a modicum of reciprocal respect. However, saying to said person, “This is offensive to me,” is a lost opportunity. Though he doesn’t need speeches, he does need, when you do speak, to receive something more nourishing than a statement about your feelings. Don’t ram the food down his throat, but don’t dodge the subject, either.  Where he is loved as a person, rather than as a project, this person can, in small servings, take real meat.

8) Is the person just testing you? It’s a lame power thing: “I pushed the button! She jumped! Ha ha! I am the Puppet-Master!” The best response here is no response, because any response rewards this behaviour. This is not cowardice or compromise: we have Our Lord’s own example for it. He told us not to cast pearls before swine. During His Passion, He spoke to the Jewish high priests and He spoke to Pilate. Before Herod, he was silent.

9) Is the person running from a guilty conscience? Well, let’s face it – some people are. I don’t really know what we can do when we realise this. I have a longstanding fantasy in which I address certain persons with the words, “I know you’re running from an unconfessed mortal sin,” but I’ve never tried it, and I suspect it wouldn’t do much good. I’ll leave this one up to your prudence.

10) Is the person just quoting something else? Sometimes you’ll cop something rude or ignorant, but the offending person is himself just reacting to something he saw on the news or read in a paper. He’s basically a good guy feeling angsty at the Church because of some misinformation. This can be an opportunity for a real conversation; I mean, most people actually like finding out that things aren’t as bad as they think they are, and, if you’ve spent most of your life acting like a normal person, they’ll be fine with few polite and calm words from you. “This is offensive,” is okay, but you have a chance here to share some actual, useful facts.

11) Is the person malicious? Alas! Despite all of the above, it remains true that some people will strike out at us because they really do hate us. My first piece of advice here is this: you know all the articles and stories that make it sound as though there’s a personality we’re meant to assume in times of trial, so that we just rise up and wave our banners and ride bravely out into battle? Forget them. God made everyone different, and if the cold, stinking breath of malice makes you shrink or freeze, it’s not to your discredit. You can offer up that horrible feeling for the guy’s soul. There’s no law saying we’re all meant to be Joan of Arc.

However, if you’re the sort of person who does tend to rise up, make speeches, get personal in a fight, punch things or whatever, and you’ve been holding back those tendencies, (possibly because a random blog told you to!) then this is your happy day. Okay – I know that scorn and derision are not supposed to be weapons in the Christian armory, but…remember that bit about keeping the reaction proportionate to the action? This is this time to give as good as you get – not to be cheap or insulting, but certainly to be forthright.

Look at the saints. Saint Peter Yu Tae-ch’ol, aged thirteen, endured fourteen separate sessions of torture, six hundred lashings, forty-five beatings, and then had his flesh torn off. After one of the whippings, he took a chunk of his flesh from his shoulder and threw it at his prison guard.

I love him!

One thought on “Don’t Cry “Offensive!” – Part Two

  1. Maria says:

    My father had an interesting saying about all of this…although I am most certain it wasn’t “his”: Never argue with a fool, people may not know the difference.
    A very thorough summary on how to deal with individual offensive remarks…thank you!

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