Taking Offence


I have a friend who used to say he didn’t take offence even if it was offered.

What the hell does he know? Everyone these days takes offence at pretty much everything someone else says or does and, what’s more, they demand that the offending person by sufficiently punished. Personally I’m offended – and soon you will be, too.

This morning a man is complaining because his anti-abortion flag was taken down by City Hall. He was offended at this insult – which occurred apparently because so many people were offended by the flag. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone demanded that people stop talking about Mother’s Day because he had recently lost his mother. And so it goes.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that the only use for Trump’s mouth was as Putin’s cock holster. This offended people on both the right and the left; the former thought it vulgar and an insult to the presidency while the later called it homophobic. Meanwhile, Colbert has apologized (sort of) even though he’s frequently said much worse things about better people. This has not stopped the demands for his firing nor diminished the ratings of his late night show.

Over in Ireland, Stephen Fry was under investigation for blasphemy over remarks he made about some generalized God. Never mind that he was addressing an age old theological problem as to why there is evil in the world. And don’t say free will – that might explain evil people but it hardly explains tsunamis or cancer in 4-year olds. The investigation was dropped when it was discovered there was only one complainant and he wasn’t really offended but thought others might be. How presumptuous! I’m offended that he appropriated other people’s offence for his own purposes.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation, which apparently now means observing, talking about, thinking of or imagining anything that is not directly taken from your own culture. This is not to diminish the real issues of colonialism and the silencing of the voice of the other – which may well be a factor in why some writers and artists do not get the attention they deserve – but to suggest that it is inappropriate to even imagine the other is a crime against… well, I’m not sure who. Some have even suggested that eating ethnic food might be inappropriate (and don’t get me started on the evils of tourism) which I’m sure would come as a big shock – and economic blow – to the Chinese family that sells me noodles.

This is not simply an issue of free speech as some have framed it but something much deeper and concerning. It is a form of cultural isolationism, an ahistorical approach that appeals equally to the xenophobic right and the identity-obsessed left.

But if we actually are one race – the human race – and live on one world, as environmentalists like to say, shouldn’t we all be learning from each other and using our imaginations to make the other us?

But maybe that’s just offensive.

And that’s ten minutes.


4 thoughts on “Taking Offence

  1. Well said, I have considered blogging about it but you have hit the nail on the head. I do believe, frankly, that we live in the era of social media when everybody is offended (butt hurt as my son calls it). It’s all identity politics now and I think we’ve passed the point of no return because the technology is driving the new tribalism of the 21st century. We are all tribes based on our sense of disenfranchisement based on race, religion, economic status, historical grievance, sexual orientation and so on.. Rome is falling again, I think. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.


  2. Let’s think about this temporally, as I’m wont to do myself. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the political correctness debates of the 1990s. If we take the comparison seriously, what does it say about the present moment?

    First, I’d argue that utopianism is alive and well. People do want a better world, and not only for themselves (even the guy who complained about Fry might be seen as altruistic). In the post-Cold War nineties, a generation dreamed of a fairer world, that would pay attention to the feelings of people too often dismissed and redress Third World inequities after liberating the Second World. Arguably, this tied into the coming out of anti-globalization movements in Seattle, Rome, and Quebec City, and various other laudable initiatives of that decade (ICC, landmine ban, Kyoto accord), all of which lasted until the Bush election and the September 11 attacks changed the conversation.

    So, we’ve now had the Trump election to change the conversation. Is anything else coming down the pike? Or will the utopians among us find a way to improve things that is more concrete than just improving speech?

    Second… hmmm, looks like I’ve forgotten my second point.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great piece in general, particularly as the modern art of being offended extends far, far beyond the “cultural appropriation” issue that’s particularly timely in Canada right now. But I think cultural sensitivity requires, by definition, an understanding of how different cultures *relate* to the idea of appropriation. The two poles by which I orient myself, typically, are young Japanese people on one hand, and indigenous peoples of North America on the other.

    In the first case are people fascinated by their own pop culture and pleased as punch with the influence it’s had on the West. They consume American classic rock voraciously, and love the “otaku” phenomenon by which white Westerners are now fully immersed in anime, J-pop, sushi, and everything else they’ve been able to export. Meanwhile, older Japanese businessmen court Western business partners with traditional gifts like tea sets and kimonos, and fully expect you to use them. They know full well a white American in a kimono looks a little ridiculous: to them, when you wear that thing to one of their social functions, you’re sending the cultural method that being like them is more important to you than saving face. This concept of “face” is more important there than here: behind it all is the idea that cultural appropriation, even when you get it wrong, is a gesture toward kinship. People in Japan are as offended as anyone else by actual racism, but it’s within the culture of this small nation to take pride in the wide influence of their stories and art, and to be flattered when they see it imitated–even badly–by people on the far side of a cultural divide.

    Indigenous peoples in Canada, speaking very generally, have pretty much the exact opposite reaction, and if we don’t know the historical reasons for this by now, we should. Every gesture of cultural appropriation against an indigenous people is an echo and a continuation of the colonialist oppression that resulted in 400 years of abuse, child rape, genocide, hatred, and systematic exploitation—and only recently, I was taken to task by a survivor of the Sixties Scoop because the way I’ve phrased this frames it as a past issue rather than one that is still ongoing.

    The smallest gesture of appropriation, in the context of settler atrocities, is a far more serious cultural crime than the other things white people appropriate from other cultures on an almost casual basis. Make a Norwegian god into an Avenger? No big deal. Steal High Tea from the English, who stole tea-drinking itself from India? No problem. Does the NAACP go on a protest march every time a pasty white John Mayer cranks out a Chicago blues album in crude imitation of Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters? No. But if John Mayer, being a native of Connecticut, tried to record an album of chanting and drumming from the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation, there would be hell to pay for it.

    This means that yes, there’s a two-tiered system in which a white millionaire is allowed to make money singing the music of one historically oppressed nonwhite group, but not of another. We intuitively know why this is, but have a hard time articulating it.

    I think, in some sense, cultural sensitivity means understanding the context in which we appropriate. Sometimes, it’s in a context where our appropriation is accepted, or even invited and welcomed. In other cases (the classic example being white dudes wearing dreadlocks, which has in recent years become a symbol of certain Rastafarian anti-colonialist struggles, but historically existed in several ancient white cultures), it’s a case where no offense is given, and people hit the “sweet spot” of your article, where the issue of problematic offense versus freedom of expression is sort of up in the air. But where our blind entitlement to sometimes sacred indigenous traditions echoes and evokes half a millennium of abuse, particularly against an oral culture whose “original” stories are not written down somewhere, but are forever twisted the moment we put our white hands on them, I think there’s a more serious harm than simply “offending” somebody that’s happening. As you point out with the brilliant example of Chinese food, not all cultural appropriation is created equal, and there’s a broad enough spectrum of appropriation that anyone who says “all appropriation is taboo” is every bit as misguided as the person who says “we can take what we want with no responsibility.” The cultural matrix in which we have to exist–and coexist–is much more complex than that, and I wish there wasn’t one blanket word like “appropriation” that simultaneously referred to one white teenager who starts a high school manga club, and another who wears a horrendous day-glo neon mockery of a ceremonial eagle-feather headdress to dance topless at Coachella Music festival.

    “Appropriation” may be the right word for both of these. But in ways it’s hard to put into words, we all ought to know the difference.


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