Taking offense seems now to be one of the chief arts of conversation, and we all know people who do it with remarkable energy. Tell a joke that is off color by even the slightest shade—about a gluten-intolerant parakeet, say—and invariably one member of your audience will glare at you resentfully, making a display of mustering the courage to declare with a quavering voice, “My sister-in-law has a gluten-intolerant parakeet, I will have you know. Clearly you don’t understand what life is like for them.” Absurd as the objection seems, you walk away feeling the embarrassment of having committed a gaffe, of having all within earshot witness you stumble and fall on the slick ice of small talk. You have the sinking feeling that you must now re-earn your membership card in the coffeehouse of compassionating souls.
Which is of course precisely the aim of taking offense: to draw social boundaries between the enlightened and the unenlightened. Sometimes this can seem like an excellent idea, as when polite people decided to shun those who pepper their speech with racial epithets. But when essentially like-minded people gather, the distinctions necessarily grow finer, becoming exercises in the art of cleaving to fashionable causes. In a more literate time, agility with language itself served the same social function. Nimble wit and elegant turns of phrase are quite lost in our age of hasty reading and writing, replaced by an arms race of escalating awareness with its corresponding set of sensitivities. Ours is an age of “content.” Social prestige is gained by keeping abreast of the mountain of information our world is constantly heaping upon us—“Did you see that thing about the EU banning Glyphosate? Good for them. I hate Monsanto. So. Much.”
All of this is to say that sensitivity wears an over-sized mask of enlightenment, but only a mask. It is, most often, about observing a dominant culture’s rules of decorum. Amongst novelists Henry Fielding may be the most perceptive observer of this phenomenon. His strongest critique of the Man of Feeling, that figure of decorous sensitivity of his time, is at the core of his magnificent character Parson Adams: a thoroughly decent and upright soul entirely at home in the middle of a tavern brawl. As a justice of the peace, Fielding knew firsthand that being a lout did not prevent a man from being good, and that behind polite society’s refined veneer of sensitivity often lurks ruthlessly self-seeking corruption.
This is why the revisions of speech often described as “political correctness” raise objections from the right and left. From the right they feel like rules of decorum imposed by a foreign culture, one that has colonized the terrain of work and education. From the left, “political correctness” fails because it is a revision of speech alone. It names a style of expression that does not discomfit others. As is always the case with decorum, it lays a decorative border on the brutal edge of privilege. It is the conversational equivalent of chamber music that in its gently wafting tones assures whites that they are not the wrong kind of white, men that they are not the wrong kind of man, straights that they are not the wrong kind of straight.
Enlightenment, on the other hand, need not mince words. It can speak in the harsh tones of a biblical prophet, crying with Jeremiah O, earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord. It lays bare precisely those edges of brutality that decorum conceals. Where sensitivities prevent us from giving offence, enlightenment reminds us that our very existence is offensive: to live in relative comfort is to be complicit in innumerable crimes. Enlightenment is a full-throated call to end our life of iniquity, to mend our ways and make our world one of dignity and harmony.
We must immediately note that even though plain speech always aims at cutting through conventions of decorum, it is not at all always a sign of enlightenment. As Cicero noted of Caesar’s plain speaking in the Brutus, it can be an effective device in lending an appearance of earthy honesty to a man with his own agenda. This pattern continues to reproduce itself in our own political lives. The kind of plain speaking in which we are interested is an unfiltered hearkening to truth, which can serve as an organizing principle for more just and inclusive forms of human community.
It thus does not go far to say that sensitivity is the symptom of a victim culture, an uncharitable view that still resides in the realm of policing casual conduct. We might see it as a way-station to enlightenment, as expressing a half-formed impulse to do no harm. But we should recall that every cultural tradition has associated the path to enlightenment with extreme discomfort—starving in the desert, climbing the mountain, enduring opprobrium—rather than with polished conversation. That is no path for the hyper-sensitive.
a series of essays on necessary and unnecessary distinctions
Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor in the Graduate Center at CUNY. With Marcus Keller and Ellen McClure, he edits the Northwestern University Press series “Rethinking the Early Modern.”
image: Edvard Munch, “Scream” Head and Raised Arms, ca 1898, via the Munch Museum website