On Henry Porter's 'Right to Offend' - the virtue of cultural offence
“It is only when we appreciate the significance of these principles that we can let the past, shorn of its deficiencies, to come to maximal fruition and be of progressive relevance in a globalised future. It is in our efforts to put up an intelligent and objective defence(and offence) that leads us to the true nature of our identity which we might otherwise be less than appreciative of. If not, historical and cultural replicationism will certainly contribute to the future being shorn of those proficiencies that will enable history to repeat itself. ~ ed
Henry Porter, The Guardian :
“The Right to Offend
…but I can say that free speech – even about religion – is the freedom to be offended.
Good article indeed!
I'm, officially, but not officiously, a Roman Catholic; attributed the identity of 'an Indian' purely on the basis of my biological ancestor having taken a piss in India; by nature's choice, a 'man'; nationally, and unfortunately, a 'singaporean' (but, thankfully, currently in the UK); but am well aware that all identities are consequences of disparate histories, perspectival spaces, and historical reactions in the face of a myriad of circumstances that can lead to these cultures not being maximally developed or becoming culturally introverted.
Hence, I believe that the pairing of critique and consideration on all sides of identity-divides tends to focus us on the true meaning of whatever identity we take on after we clear it of the perspectivally debilitating debris that inevitably comes from the foundational and less than ideal - non-globalised - basis upon which our respective, but not always respectable, 'cultures/identities' emerged.
So critique away mates. Do your worst, for in the consideration of which, I'm sure I'll be able to visualise my best.
A bit more…
When we say we are ‘Muslim’, ‘Indian’, ‘Man’, ‘Woman’, ‘Christian’, ‘Chinese’, and so on. What we are actually saying is that we are a product of oversights and insights garnered in the course of a relatively disparate history and perspectival space (perspectival space includes culture, politics, the way we cook, etc). And in this, we are actually acknowledging that we are a product of less than ideal conditions from which emerge our identity. I say, ‘less than ideal’ conditions because I have no problem acknowledging that the less my exposure to various ideas, the less refined are mine. Hence, the fact that these ideas were produced within relatively isolated circumstances, oppressive systems, or defensively in the face of aggression, basically means globalisation enables us to use a myriad of perspectives to re-evaluate those cultures we have for millennia have had little choice but to identify with for want of a globalised milieu. Along with this, the production of my ideas may only help me get along in the environment wherein I produced them, or be an impediment in new circumstances in making the most of myself and others.
This is where cultural critique comes in and Henry Porter’s, ‘Right to Offend’, becomes synonymous with, ‘the Right to question after the viability of your/my way of thinking and doing things in enabling the continuation and progress of this democratic and globalised milieu’.
If this causes offence, it is not always the critique that causes offence, but, at times, the inability of the identity-holder to tear her/imself away from the feel-good refuge her/is identity has supplied her and consider the validity of the critique. That is why I’ve always stated that ‘cultural pride’ is the refuge of fools. I’d opt for cultural objectivity myself.
For instance, what is it to be ‘Muslim’? For the ignoramuses out there, it is synonymous with ‘terrorist’. But quite a bit of the meaning of perceived and practiced Islam comes from a host of sources. One of them is the association of ‘Muslim’ with those practices that emerged in the course of attempting to identify oneself as a separate people in the face of foreign cultural hegemony or political aggression, i.e. the Crusades, the west arrogantly handing over Arab land to the Jews. Thus, these practices or perspectives might get confused for that which Islam might not be in itself.
For instance, what is ‘a communist’? Some would associate it with Stalin, Gulags, the KGB, and so on. But that is not the true meaning of ‘communist’ but rather products of a defensive reaction against those whom wanted to destabilise the communist regime. Hence, thereafter, communism came to mean something else other than what was intrinsic to its core perspectives.
For instance, what is ‘a chinese’? Those whom identify and take pride in ‘chinese culture’? No, it is a perspectival constitution that is derived from popular political failure and top-down oppression that in turn led to the production of a system of thought that enabled its practitioners to circumvent the negative consequences of said popular political oppression to make it more palatable in perpetuity.
For instance, what is it to be 'a woman'? On the one hand, it is an identity borne of experiences in a male-dominated history that whilst marginalising them, protected them from being incorporated into the worst propensities of mankind whilst their nurturing instinct brought about by their reproductive capabilities led to their being the embodiment of the non-mephistophelean half of humanity. On the other hand, it is currently an identity borne of a thoroughly masculine 'feminist' endeavour that sought to be included in the bestial socio-economic-political milieu created by men. So these days, if a 'woman' was to say, 'I am woman, hear me roar!', that which is emitted sounds like that of a transvestite yet to undergo a voice change. For in the reaction against a male dominated society, the idea of 'woman' became quite corrupted. I mean, when butt-bouncing 'Spice Girls' or the hump-anything-in-skirt-or-boxers 'Madonna' is taken to be a sign of 'Girl Power', then we know that the identity of women has mutated sufficiently to see an increase in the sale of strap-ons - which gives credence and true meaning to the theory of 'penile envy'.
Let's not forget that when we are assailed by a culturally distinguishable force, we tend to run helter skelter seeking out just about every cultural symbol we can get our hands on to rally the troops. And when we do this, we tend to exclude any symbol or perspective that might overlap with that of the enemy so as to bring about that degree of cultural distinction for the purpose of reserving whatever privileges or preserve whatever self-perceptions we have learnt to hold on to to give us meaning in life. In Piagetian terms, it can be perceived as an effort to maintain 'cognitive equilibrium', that is, the efforts to maintain the formulae by which we are already making sense of reality as opposed to exposing ourselves to the tedium of thinking along novel lines and placing ourselves in the self-efficacy-compromising position of self-doubt. In the worst case scenario, culture is generally the last refuge of the depoliticised or disenfranchised. In the 'best' case, which is just as bad as the worst case, it is perceived to be the reason why we managed to beat back or match the others. And right in between the worst and 'best' case is purgatorial phase where we attempt to achieve either. In this, the masses are detracted from, perhaps, the essence of their own faith, or the true causes of their respective cultures.
In these instances, the meaning of identities we take on or meanings attributed to identities are corrupted by perceptions, a less than ideal past, defensive posturing in the face of aggression, and so on. However, in the face of critique, having no other ready-made and thoughtlessness/feel-good-inducing refuge and pedestal to access, we revert to what we have been thought to know and block out the self-doubt inducing critique of others with the aid of proscriptions on ‘being offensive’.
There is a big bulbous line between being offensive and being thought-provoking that comprises a combination of ignorance and cultural pride on both sides. And sometimes, that is a sentiment felt by the person being offended. Of course, just calling an Afro-american a ‘nigger’ or 'cotton picker', or quite a few Chinese are fond of calling Indians ‘mamas’ or ‘prata men’ is certainly offensive in itself as it strips the individual of her/is personality and reduces her/im to just a word or occupation that references nothing of perceived significance. However, if one was to say, this or that race of people are ‘stupid’, that would sound offensive, but is not necessarily offensive provided the person can provide a justification for her/is statement. And if s/he does, or even if s/he doesn’t, then we can go on to study if this is true or false, and in the course of which, we either end up identifying those cultural elements that causes various types of ‘stupidity’ amongst that ‘race’ of people, or why they aren’t and the offender is stupid for stating it; or perhaps inquiring after the offender’s idea of ‘intelligence’ so that we might consider applying those perspectives that can enhance the ‘stupid’ race of people’s intelligence. If you think about it, that is the approach utilised in, amongst others, the fields of psychology and sociology is it not? From there we move on to determining the optimum conditions to 'bring up baby' and a population don't we? So why should 'culture' be exempt, pray tell?
In sum, I have to reiterate,
1. many identities are founded on the basis of less than ideal pasts founded on politically/socially oppressive environments, defensive posturing in the face of aggressors, etc.
2. these will incline the population toward insights and oversights which will be maintained by the compensatory and recuperative function of ‘cultures’
3. that no idea reaches its maximal development till subjected to the scrutiny of critique borne of paradigms produced by disparate histories
4. that critique, when paired with consideration on both sides, is actually an attempt to free cultures of whatever restraints our respectively disparate histories have produced.
It is only when we appreciate the significance of these principles that we can let the past, shorn of its deficiencies, to come to maximal fruition and be of progressive relevance in a globalised future. It is in our efforts to put up an intelligent and objective defence that leads us to the true nature of our identity which we might otherwise be less than appreciative of. If not, historical and cultural replicationism will certainly contribute to the future being shorn of those proficiencies that will enable history to repeat itself.
So, people, if you have an identity, open it to critique, lest you mistake your own identity to be that which it essentially might be not.