By DONALD DeMARCO
In the Act of Contrition we acknowledge twice that we have offended God. God is all good and deserving of all our love. Offenses against Him, therefore, are offenses against love. We are commanded to love God and neighbor. When we fail in this regard, we confess our having offended God, primarily, and neighbor, secondarily. Christianity understands the meaning of being offensive in the proper perspective. Love is pro-active; sin, as a refusal to love, offends both God and man.
Society needs a moral framework. Otherwise, it sinks into chaos. But a moral framework without any reference to God gives man a centrality that he does not deserve. Thus, the notion of being offensive is now understood as an act that is primarily directed against man. Moreover, since society does not command people to be virtuous, being offended lacks a clear and objective basis. In this way, a person can claim to be offended for any number of reasons that are entirely subjective. Certain passages in the Bible are now deemed offensive, along with many Church teachings, pro-life views, and even opening the door for someone.
It is noteworthy that the present hypersensitivity to being offended has occurred alongside an explosion of offensive language. Oddly enough, offensive language, especially in films, does not appear to be as offensive as words that, only a few years ago, were not considered offensive at all, such as “wife” and “husband.” The “coarsening of America,” a phenomenon that has attracted the interest of many culture critics, is unfolding independently of an epidemic of people who are offended for subjective and often trivial reasons.
Are dumb blonde jokes offensive, or are they examples of innocent humor? “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes,” quips Dolly Parton, “because I know I’m not dumb…and I also know that I’m not blonde.” We should all be able to poke fun at our own foibles. No one is immune to characterization. We may be easily offended because we take ourselves too seriously. “Lighten up,” is good advice for the supersensitive.
If people had a good reason to be offended, it would be by the prevalence of offensive language. Yet, such language is routinely defended in the interest of realism, liberality, and freedom from censorship. “Being offended” has taken on an ideological character which precludes any form of reasoned debate. William F. Buckley Jr. was acutely sensitive to this development. “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views,” he once remarked, “but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” An offended party might say, as it were, “I am offended because your view is inconsistent with my ideology.” In this way, a person can allow himself to be “offended” by another’s defense of traditional marriage.
Placing “being offended” within an ideological context removes the issue from philosophical discussion and makes it personal. Consequently, a person can claim being hurt by another’s reference to the natural law, not because the natural law is inherently offensive, but because it does not fit into one’s ideological frame of reference. In this way, photographs of aborted babies are offensive, although photographs of victims of automobile accidents are not.
We would all be better off if we concentrated on doing good, rather than in looking for ways to be offended.
Leonardo da Vinci had the right idea when he said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
Abraham Lincoln, steeped as he was in Christian sentiments, lived by the maxim, “We should be too big to take offense, and to noble to give it.”
For René Descartes, “Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it.”
Socrates held that it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one. By the same token, it is better to be offended by another than to commit the same offense.
The person whose principal interest in life is to avoid ever being offended will find that he has succeeded only in avoiding life. This was the tragic fate of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock who, in being excessively concerned about what other people were saying about him, became anxiety-ridden about “disturbing the universe” and finally ended his life by drowning.
No one has the right to go through life without ever being offended. But we all have the obligation to do good and refrain from offending God.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)