I love midnight movies, the Golden Oldies; they are the silver-lining of insomnia. Recently I caught part of an old black-and-white movie—Pressure Point—of the days when African-Americans were still called Negroes. Sidney Poitier plays a black prison psychiatrist. At one point his white patron says something about not expecting a Negro to be a successful psychiatrist and, suddenly realizing to whom he is talking, quickly adds: “No offense intended.” To which Poitier replies, with lordly dignity: “No offense taken.” This script is unthinkable in the nineties, more’s the pity. Offense is to be taken.
“A gentleman,” it used to be said when the term was still operative, “never gives offense unwittingly.” Translated into current language, a gentleman was thought to have “sensitivity”—with a negative sign. He had a highly raised consciousness of people’s feelings and on occasion meant to hurt them. That is why a gentleman’s (or a gentlewoman’s) insults were taken with deadly seriousness. Men used to get themselves killed or banished fighting duels over them.
Quite incidentally, the old saying shows up the danger of sensitivity training and consciousness raising—that benignly meant bullying of the guilty in soul by the pure at heart: people might well learn how to hurt more effectively. Anyone like a dean, who is by duty condemned to follow the chronicles of higher education, knows that some such result is appearing on campuses now.
We all know that there are lives and then there are lifestyles. Lives are unities evolving from crucial choices, while lifestyles are accretions of consumer preferences. Similarly, there are morals and moral styles.
Taking offense is a moral style. We learn that we owe ourselves offense-taking, as we might owe ourselves some other indulgence. Nietzsche studied a trait of democratic humanity that he called ressentiment, the envious, cowed, suppressed soreness of those who feel themselves underprivileged by nature. He didn’t know America: among us natural equals, resentment is an expansive pleasure, and the announcement “I am angry” the proud prelude to moral action. We have canonized the category of hero-victim. “So sensitive” used to be a term of disapprobation for those who feel slights too much, but now “being sensitive” is a term of approval for those who are aware of others’ feelings. And it takes a lot of awareness, since we have learned to take offense not only where it is intended but where there is no one to intend it. We take offense at history, at language, at the system, at society—so that anyone who moves in established ways will, willy-nilly sometimes give offense.
Europeans have always thought that Americans were preternaturally polite. Perhaps the sensitizing of our social intercourse will elevate American gentility to true courtesy. But there is at least one other danger, besides the danger of learning only too well how to hurt.
This danger comes from the fact that the status of hero-victim is nonrenewable. In the long run, victims are considered as impaired and incur pity or contempt. That is a harsh fact of human nature, permanent and irremediable by wise words, I think. Victims cannot be winners except in the momentary upsurge of public indignation.
What to do? Here is what I tell myself: Forty-nine times out of fifty, say (and think) “No offense taken,” because none will have been intended. People say and do dopey things. That’s life.
The fiftieth time it may be serious. Then don’t take offense—take the offensive. Let “Take no slight” be your motto, but be sure that that is what it is. Smilingly steely determination, you will find, is usually enough to prevent the coming of it. But if it has come, in your calm moral judgment, take such cool action as will ensure that victimhood descends on the appropriate party.
Disclaimer: I have not been talking of assaults and harassments of various types. These are criminal offenses.
This essay was originally published here in July 2013, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Duel,” by