On the Offensive

On the Offensive

Steven Connor

I cannot remember a time when people were so likely to take offence, or, rather, what comes to the same thing, when we were more edgily aware of the risk of giving it. Contracts, corporate guidelines and codes of conduct of all kinds warn against words or actions that are ‘liable to cause offence’. Artists and writers, and those who transmit their work, like producers, publishers and broadcasters, must maintain a constant state of vigilance with regard to the possibility of causing offence.

The funny thing about the word ‘offence’ is that it is so symmetrically shared out between offenders and their victims. If I offend someone, then in an obvious sense, the offence is mine, as the offending party. But, under those circumstances, the offended party is also entitled to speak of their offence at what I have said, thought or done. So now the ‘offence’ is theirs too. And this offence, in the sense of a sense of having been offended, is far from being a passive or even reactive state of feeling. Indeed, in speaking of taking offence, our language recognises that offence is not a passive state of being offended, but rather an active seizing of an advantage. When you take offence, you get a golden chance to go on to the offensive. There is also a curious inversion of time involved in the taking of offence. In contrast to a kiss or a right cross, which must be given before they can be received, taking offence is a primary and inaugural act: you cannot be said to have given offence unless it has first been taken.

To offend someone is to hurt their feelings. This is a revealing phrase. Why not just hurt them? It makes no sense to say that you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, because hurt already is a feeling. You can hurt a person, by giving them a feeling of hurt, but how on earth do you go about giving their feelings a feeling of hurt?

Now I know all too well what it is like to offend someone, but I find it almost impossible to attach any content to the feeling of being offended. It’s not that I am too soggily tolerant to be offended by anything, it’s that I honestly don’t know what being offended is meant to feel like, in the way that I’m sure I know what it feels like to be angry, humiliated, jealous, sad, envious or fearful. What’s more, and no offence, but I actually mean that I don’t know what it feels like for anyone to be offended, and I don’t think they do either. Hence the bizarre, but giveaway phrase ‘I feel personally offended’. For one never in fact does feel personally offended, because offence is always a vicarious feeling, which is felt, or claimed on behalf of some other putatively injured party. Being offended is therefore not something you feel, but something you do: it’s a demand, a claim to entitlement and, of course, reparation.

So why do people insist that they feel offended? It’s surely because, if you recognise that taking offence is an active demand you might have to take responsibility for it. Whereas, if you can pull off the trick of persuading yourself and others that you are the helpless victim of an offence that has been gratuitously done to you, then you will seem to have no choice in what you say and do in response. To have no choice, to be able deliciously to conceal from ourselves the choices we have always made and to give them the force of fatality, is our deepest and saddest craving.