Taking Offense

I just read a post over at Publishers Weekly about a book group being vocally offended by a bookseller's reading suggestion. The bookseller, who is also the PW blogger, was baffled by their offense. Not just because they were so loud about their objections - which I might understand; after all, they should have known better than to keep reading if the material was offensive - but that they seemed reluctant to talk about the issue of sexuality.

When I was working on my graduate degree, some of my fellow students invited me to watch a widely acclaimed art house film that was laced with sexually explicit scenes. When it was over, I told them how awful I thought it was, how inappropriate, disturbing and unnecessary it seemed. In turn, they were offended that I hadn't been able to see past my puritanical hang-ups to see the artistic quality of the film.

I have remembered that post-movie conversation with them for years because it baffled me. I have still not been able to figure out why I was so quickly accused of being small-minded just because I believed that some kind of precious human intimacy had been violated on screen. Since when does a moral conviction imply intellectual inferiority? Does maturity mean you ought to relegate your personal convictions to a matter of conversational disagreement? Is it no longer politically correct to take offense? Why on earth is this?

There's a big difference between watching a scene of sexual experimentation or reading about a woman's sexual explorations, and having a conversation about it. I doubt these book group women were offended by the prospect of discussing the book as much as they were offended by the encouragement given to them to read something that they considered to have crossed 'the line'.

Now, they had every right to put the book down and express their opinion silently and graciously - or not at all - without reading another word. And I had every right to walk out of the film so many years ago, though I didn't. If I was small-minded about anything, it was that I cared too much for my friends' good opinion.

I agree that we seem hesitant, as the blogger suggests, to discuss dissenting ideas. I don't think sexuality is one of them. People have been arguing over sexual privacy and sexual freedom since the dawn of human intercourse (double meaning intended). What we continue to avoid addressing is that these two perspectives just don't live well together: those who say it's socially oppressive to take public offense over a personal conviction, and those who say that the more we relegate moral conviction to private opinion, the more we damage whatever it is that makes us human.

We seem to skirt around this distinction, focusing instead on either, a) the smallness of the minds of the conservative, or b) the audacious laxity of the liberal. (It doesn't help that these arguments somehow land themselves on two opposing sides of a political fence.)

If I believe that something is sacred, whether it be sexuality, the office of the church, the unborn, the creative urge of humanity, science, dolphins, whatever, am I not obligated to acknowledge that sanctity before the world? Have we forgotten that a belief and an opinion are two different things - and that if I believe something, I cannot believe it is true only for me, or it is only an opinion (or even an illusion)? And if something - like a moral code, perhaps - is true for everyone, and I find it being ignored or mocked or abused, shouldn't I say something? Wouldn't it be cowardly of me not to?

It certainly wouldn't be small-minded.

I suppose it would just be refreshing, after all, if the side in favor of moral license would just admit that they, too, are offended. But 'taking offense' has become their way of labeling something on our side. It's their way of taking our convictions and demeaning them to the state of a child's tantrum. Interesting wordplay. In the end, it makes real discussion - of the kind the aforementioned blogger is apparently hoping for - well...rather impossible. Not much can be done until we're all, at the very least, speaking the same language.


  1. Amen, friend. I had an experience exactly a week ago where I was trying to have a meaningful conversation with two friends who believe, well I'm not sure what they believe in, either nothing, or nothing but their own perspective. There came a point in the rather heated debate when it dawned on me that we weren't having a conversation, they had no respect for the convictions of others, which from their perspective is fine. Since nothing matters but your own perspective (vey modern and very old thinking, sad, and foolish). Not mine. Some things are too important to be mocked. It was utterly shocking to me that they would be so oblivious and blatant in their disrespect. So I got up and left without saying another word. It was weird. I'm not one to back down from a fight, but I felt utterly convicted that the only thing I could do was leave. I didn't even say goodbye. I freely admit that leaving was just as much to keep me from fully unleashing my tongue and doing a lot of damage, but it was weird.

    Just agreeing that it's hard to find people these days who won't belittle you for your religious (or any) conviction. While they have the impunity to remain convicted that nothing is worth conviction. It's an odd hypocrisy you see pretty much everywhere.


  2. A free society is (supposed to be) one where it is safe to be unpopular


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