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. Continue reading