The Culture Of Offense
Thursday, I put up a photo of four strong women who work at the Round House Cafe in Cambridge, N.Y. all individualists, each one spells their name in their own way – Kyra, Alliyah, Korinna and Emmalee. I love the photo (which I took down later because I put up another one from the Round House, Scott Carrino and mike night, I didn't want two up of the same place.) The picture says a lot to me, a lot of my readers like it.
My blog is not a local blog, it is a national blog (international really) I did decide when I moved to bedlamfarm.2.0 to put up more photos and stories about my community, which is bigger than a farm, and that has been successful – blog readers like it also, it creates a fuller picture of my world, it stretches the boundaries of my writing and photography.
I like bringing images and stories about human beings to the blog. Yesterday, completely unbeknownst to me until today, I ignited a bit of a Facebook firestorm by tossing in a caption – perhaps one of the dullest and least interesting things I have ever written – expressing the observation that some people in town preferred the local diner and others the Round House Cafe, and that my sense of this was that generally locals preferred the diner and new people were drawn to the cafe, as they reflect some different ideas about food. This was, of course, one of those sweeping generalizations people who write a lot sometimes make. I think it is true, but not, of course, totally true. Many people go to both and quite happily. My local friends enjoyed the piece, laughed about it, thought it was quite true.
But it was perhaps inevitable that somebody would take offense. We live in a growing culture of offense – people no longer just disagree, they are outraged and offended by ideas they disagree with and rush to share their hysterias and fury on Facebook, the national transmitter of outrage and hysteria, where anyone can draw a crowd of equally outraged people. Anyone who is any public position – writers, politicians, entertainers, businesspeople – are familiar with the culture of outrage that technology and the culture of super-sensitivity has spawned. America, founded in part on the idea of protecting offensive and controversial speech, now punishes all speech that is not tepid and inoffensive. Any public person is just one bad idea away from ruin.
Writers are less vulnerable, to be sure, we don't have to seek election and we are generally supposed to be odd and outrageous.
When it comes to freedom, there is a fine line and great conflict between sensitivity and free speech. Duck Dynasty's star Phil Robertson was suspended from A&E last week for making vile homophobic and racist comments in an interview with GQ. He joins a growing list of politicians and entertainers and journalists – Alec Baldwin, Martin Bashir of MSNBC- driven from public life for saying stupid things. This is the rise of the mob via social media, the swirl of offense and outrage that terrifies the scions of the corporate culture, their immediate response is a public death sentence for the offender, anyone who talks honestly with a magazine about their ideas is courting disaster, so fewer and fewer people talk at all, it isn't worth the risk.
These are the very people who need our protection, not our banishment from public life. We need to speak freely to mix ideas, challenge some, advance others, increasingly difficult in the suffocating world of hyper-sensitivity and political correctness. Gays can survive Phil Robertson's dumb rantings, Sarah Palin can endure Martin Bashir's crudity. They created the First Amendment for it, it is important, even for people who say dumb things, especially for them.
Thomas Jefferson's idea was that it was offensive and provocative people who needed their speech to be protected, not the rational and glib and cautious ones. Many of the ideologues behind the American Revolution – Thomas Paine, John Adams, Jefferson himself – said outrageous and blasphemous things all the time. Free speech is much under siege. All over the public spectrum – television, politics, the arts , the business world – people are watching what they say, curbing free and open speech, avoiding debates and disagreements for fear of saying the one dumb thing that will cost them their jobs or their public lives. If you speak in public or write long enough, you will invariably say at least one stupid thing – I've written many more than that.
I learned long ago that every single thing I write is offensive to someone, especially in the age of social media, where many people just don't have enough to do to occupy themselves meaningfully or have a very low threshold for outrage. People tell me I offend them all the time, every day. I put up a photo of Lenore recently and several people were offended that I brought a dog from a breeder. Others are offended that I shear my sheep three times a year, still others that I want my barn cats to live outdoors. English teachers are offended by my grammatical errors. People are offended when I put our blind pony down, when I sent the old sheep off to go to market, when I shot a rooster for attacking Maria. People are offended when I worry that we are emotionalizing animals, that the rescue idea sometimes goes too far, that it is okay to get a dog from a breeder as well as a shelter. People are "offended" when I question the humanity of "no-kill shelters" where dogs are locked up in crates for years, when I say I am comfortable with hunting, or when I challenge the notion that we have to do everything a doctor tells us.
If I worried about offending people, I would never write a word, I would shut the blog down and turn myself into a website for the "left" or "right" where I would only talk to people who agreed with me, and would never again have to hear a disturbing or original idea. I think I would rather not.
My blog will never be a local blog, I have even less interest in angry local politics than I do in the nightmare unfolding in Washington, I will not wear the labels most people want to put on me or themselves.
So back to the group photograph of the impressive women at the Round House Cafe, a story that buzzed around some Facebook pages here in my idyllic and quiet Washington County. Some people locally suggested I was too new to venture such an opinion, others were offended because they thought I was saying new people eat in a healthier way than locals do, a couple felt they were being stereotyped (eek! As diner eaters!).
A couple of people felt obliged to go on Facebook and declare that they eat at both places. When you move to a place like this from the outside, you are forever a refugee in both – you get to annoy the people you left and those you live with now. I suppose after living up here for 15 years I am not yet entitled to observe that most – not all – locals – go one place, most people from outside go to another. A statement that is about as controversial as predicting some snow in the winter.
In my mind, this might be a banal observation, but it does not rise to the level of outrage. When I die, it will no be recalled as among my memorable statements. It isn't even interesting to me. I'm flattered, but have to decline to take this seriously, I certainly will not enter into the ritual of apology that comes with offense – it seems to me that half the public people in America are apologizing for something they said about half the time, the others just have given up saying anything interesting at all. I'm not even inclined to explain my statement. It is just foolish.
Perhaps it is possible that I have one idea, and another person have another. Could it be as simple as that?
I saw a video from the Philipines this morning of hundreds of children starving after the typhoon there because no aid has yet reached them. Many have died of starvation, are withering from disease. I was offended by it, I wonder if their parents would agree that a statement about people eating at a diner or cafe here in Washington County is of equal offense. I don't have to venture so far, there is plenty of suffering to be offended by right outside of my farmhouse door. Facebook is a two-edged sword, it helps us communicate, it feeds the growing hysteria machine that dominates public discussion in America. I guarantee you I will not hear directly from these offended people, they are quite brave on their home pages, but not really interested in communicating with the offender. Victimization is part of the new national ideology.
Basically, my response to the Culture Of Offense in the great cafe controversy is this. Nuts to you.
If you disagree with me, e-mail or talk to me, I am quite available for disagreement. People disagree with me all the time, every day. If you are offended by a statement as bland or innocuous as this, spare yourself the trouble of reading me and take a good look at your own perspective about the world we live in. I have no time for people who would rather be offended than communicate or respect the idea that humans see things in different ways. This is perhaps not the blog for you, I am not the writer for you to read, if you are offended by that post, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Free speech is important to me, it is both my life and my livelihood and was central to many of the people who founded this country, and so I reaffirm it every chance I can. My response is to post my photograph again and to declare once more to the world that people break off into sociological sub-cultures sometimes when it comes to restaurants, and it is interesting to see how that evolves. My e-mail is email@example.com if you want to reach me, you know where to find me.
I think I need to get back to the diner for their excellent Turkey-Club (sorry to offend the animal rights people, I do like turkey sandwiches.)