Not long ago, I was reading a review of a new album, released by a Christian artist who was known for his edginess and is now, perhaps, over the edge. The reviewer said (here I roughly, but accurately, paraphrase) that he had always liked this artist because he used raw words just to rile up evangelicals. And I thought that this was not truly a noble endorsement.
And it’s not because of the words he used, or because people were upset or offended, or because evangelicals were upset or offended (though I do think that, on the long road of learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, not taking positive pleasure in seeing each other offended is one step). As a reason to approve of anything, Look, he offends them! possesses doubtful worth. It seems a superficial judgment at best, an uncharitable motive at worst.
It’s unfortunate, then, that these days, it’s all around us. People have made lucrative careers of giving offense. In Exhibit 1,873 of our current societal dysfunction, certain citizens of this republic value most, in their elected officials, a demonstrated ability to offend their fellow citizens. You don’t have to look far in the broader culture to find the same impulse, to see real appreciation of the writer or artist or celebrity who offends the right people. In art, too, transgressing other people’s boundaries is often taken as a pleasure, and sometimes as an end in itself.
I understand the phenomenon; it’s all human nature, even if not the best part of it. We have all known people so annoying that they almost deserved to be offended. We have all seen boundaries so misdrawn that they deserved to be transgressed. No matter who you are, someone out there has sensibilities that are, by your measure, so hopelessly narrow or warped that they are begging to be offended. This judgment of others’ boundaries and sensibilities must, in some cases, be false. By the same rule of logic, it must, in some cases, be true. So if the sensibilities are narrow and the boundaries are skewed, isn’t there some value in offending them?
No, not intrinsically. It doesn’t follow that, because the boundaries are wrong, the offense is right. In this, as in other disputes, it is not possible that everyone is right, but it is possible that everyone is wrong. One can be politically incorrect by telling the truth, but one can also be politically incorrect by being a jerk; one can violate Victorian sensibilities in art by being better than they would permit, but also by being worse. The idea of offending the right people is tribal and superficial. Beyond the superficiality lies the lack of charity. It’s not charitable to enjoy upsetting or offending other people, nor is it worthy as an aim. What do you really achieve by bothering people?
Offense, as such, has very little meaning; it proves neither right nor wrong. As an insignificant thing, it ought to be incidental to what you are really doing. Tell the truth, or pursue artistic superiority – and perhaps people will be offended and perhaps not, but neither will be the point.