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The Beauty of Offending

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2015-05-18


When Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke at the PEN World Voices festival in New York in early May, she had some sharp words about the state of public conversation in the United States. From The Guardian's (UK) online article, Adichie is quoted as saying: "'The fear of causing offence, the fear of ruffling the careful layers of comfort becomes a fetish,' Adichie said. As such the goal of many public conversations in the United States 'is not truth. . . (it) is comfort'."

Strong words, of course, and music to the ears of any free speech fanatic who loves to agitate and provoke. In proper context, it should be noted that Adichie was reflecting on some pretty big-deal free speech questions, both here and abroad the problematic social media response to Boko Haram and the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign, the question of honoring Charlie Hebdo at the recent PEN conference (A number of high-profile writers refused to be a part of the celebration, believing that Charlie Hebdo didn't deserve any honor.) But her essential point that Americans have become so overly sensitive about offending anyone in conversation that they have become masters of self-censorship is irrefutably accurate. "There is a general tendency in the United States to define problems of censorship as essentially foreign problems," Adichie said, clearly acknowledging that that's not the case, that censorship has become an unfortunate and new American tradition.

Sometimes, in conversation, in friendly arguments, you just get so tired of qualifying every damned assertion, of being so careful not to offend anyone's delicate sensibilities that you find yourself just wanting to say to hell with it: you just want to spout out the most offensive thing you can think of, just to clear the air and get everybody to quit tiptoeing around the issue. It rarely works, I've discovered; I've tried it many times and almost every time I find that I've alienated my fellow conversationalists so much that I've earned an unpleasant sobriquet, something that usually ends with an "ist" or a "phobe." It's the problem of going to the well of "shock value" too much: people shut down, refuse to listen.

I have a number of rehearsed "offending" lines that I like to go to, just to see if I can steer a particular conversation away from the polite, genteel pablum that so dominates public discourse whenever somebody asks me if I'm going to let my young girls play soccer, for instance, I always say, No, the only organized activity I want my daughters to participate in is the bullying of other children. This statement, unsurprisingly, leads to a lot of dark stares and horrified responses. I get a lot of stern, bewildered clucking, a lot of stats about the pernicious affects of bullying, a lot of you don't really mean that, do you? I try to then use my crude "ice-breaker" to elucidate a few germane points about parenting in general, i.e., the pathological need that modern parents seem to have to have their poor kids locked in organized activities from sun up to sun down. I also want to try to get people to question the perception of "bullying" as well, to get them to wonder if every publicized instance of "bullying" is really bullying after all. (If any kid has any relatively minor disagreement with another kid, it often gets labelled as "bullying," when it's just a simple disagreement.) Unfortunately, though, my goal of actually trying to have a deeper conversation never reaches fruition. I'm just a transgressive a-hole, in their eyes, and the conversation stops.

Of course, I really am a transgressive a-hole, but that doesn't mean I don't have a point. And while I readily admit that my "organized bullying" line does give me the chance to rant about my childish, irrational hatred of soccer (come on, you know it sucks how many more "nil-nil" games are you going to sit through?), I still would like to actually complete the argument in a free-wheeling, pleasantly combative way.

It's not even permissive to have critical opinions in public anymore. Recently, at the intermission of a friend's play in Fort Wayne, I was talking with my wife about the production, and I made some mildly disparaging comments about the lead actress. When I finished speaking, a girl sitting directly in front of me stood up, turned around, and shot me a look of pure venom and absolute hatred. Obviously, the lead actress was a friend or relative of the girl's, and she must have been deeply offended that I would voice such an opinion. I returned her look with my own "What the hell?" She didn't say anything, but before the second act began, she whispered something to her boyfriend and the two other people they were sitting with, and then she moved three seats away, so as not to be subjected to anymore of my contemptuous comments.

Mind you, this was a private conversation I was having with my wife, I wasn't raising my voice, I didn't lean forward, tap the girl on the shoulder and say, "Boy, your friend sucks." I was engaging in that time-honored tradition of thinking critically and having opinions about what I was watching. As the second act began, I reflected on the exchange, and I thought, it that was my friend onstage, and I heard someone criticizing his performance, I wouldn't have cared. Just their opinion, which they're allowed to have. But today, you're not allowed to say such things. Today you're only allowed to say that everything that anybody does at anytime is just dandy. Never mind that you just shelled out twenty bucks for the production and should be allowed to say whatever you wanted, never mind that this was a public performance of a popular play, never mind that you couldn't help but feel that there were major problem with the girl's acting. It's like it is now officially a public crime to say anything negative, ever.

The incisive New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik defended PEN's decision to honor Charlie Hebdo, and in his article he defended the right of any cartoonist, critic, writer, artist et al to be as offensive as they would like. "By all means," he wrote, "mock and belittle, sneer and be sour. We all expect no less." Way ahead of you, pal.

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