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Many years ago when I began grad school, I recall overhearing fellow grad students (in comparative literature, I think) discussing Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the now classic Beat Generation story of travel through the USA. One of the students mentioned the main character’s deeply questionable behaviour – especially, as I recall, his tendency to form sexual relationships with local women and then nonchalantly abandon them – and the other agreed, responding “Yeah, On the Road is really offensive.”

I didn’t say anything – I wasn’t part of that conversation – but something about that offhand remark has bothered me ever since. “Offensive“? Is that the best word you have for a criticism, I thought? In the politically correct Nineties, had moral criticism been erased and replaced with mere “offensiveness”? Then something must have gone terribly wrong. For to my mind, offensiveness had always been something good. We political radicals – as I and the other students identified – were supposed to be offensive against the values of the conservative mainstream… weren’t we? Even now, when I’m far less political, I still love deliberately offensive humour – the bad taste of Sarah Silverman’s stand-up comedy or of South Park. To be inoffensive, by contrast, seems a lot like being nice, in the wrong way. If all that was wrong with On the Road was that it was “really offensive,” it seemed to me, then nothing is wrong with it.

What does it mean, indeed, to be “offensive”? The word has achieved a particular currency in the era of identity politics – a cultural product is “offensive” to particular groups of people. But what is that? What makes it “offensive”? Is offensiveness purely a creation of a postmodern era of heightened sensitivity? Typically, I think, something is called “offensive” because it is presumed to be insulting; more specifically, because someone feels insulted. I suspect there isn’t much of an objective dimension to offensiveness; something is only offensive if someone is offended.

And here Śāntideva’s magnificent words in chapter six of the Bodhicary?vat?ra come back to me. Śāntideva is an advocate of measured and pleasant speech; he is unlikely to insult anyone unless, perhaps, it is specifically necessary for their own spiritual development. (Thus he does direct some insults at himself.) He does not wish us to be offensive, then. But he is less worried, overall, about our insulting others than about our feeling insulted ourselves – concerned less about our offending than about our being offended. When others slander us, say bad things about us, knock down others’ praise of us – we are in grave danger not from these insults, but from our reactions to them. The latter are the real problem, one he addresses in a beautiful passage that may be my favourite in all his works, one I’ve been personally inspired by many times. I will let the (translated) passage speak for itself:

Just as a child cries out in pain when his sandcastle is destroyed — that’s how my mind appears when I lose praise and admiration. The word of praise doesn’t matter if it’s not thought; the cause of my pleasure is that someone else is pleased with me. But what do I get from someone else’s pleasure toward me? That pleasure and happiness is only theirs. Not even a small part of it is mine. If I get pleasure from their pleasure, I should get pleasure from everyone’s. Why don’t I feel as good when people are pleased by others’ actions? So the delight that I am praised is just the gesture of a child, because it is absurd. Praise, fame and admiration give me a false sense of security, and destroy my intensity. They produce jealousy toward good people, and make me angry. Therefore, those who attack my praise and so on are just protecting me against a fall into destruction. (BCA VI.93-9, my translation)