Indignation Macht Frei

Virtuous indignation is very often confused with virtue. In politically correct other moralistic hothouses, readiness to take Offence thus becomes shorthand for and proof of progressive zeal. Contrariwise, failure to take Offence suggests laxity, social deviance and complicity in oppression. No remark, therefore, can ever be innocent except provisionally, until the hawkeye has gotten round to linking it with some kind of sin or oppression and so finding it offensive.

Every allegedly offensive remark corrected and rebuked can be portrayed as a step towards liberation, whereas every such remark overlooked in the name of tolerance or good humour can be stigmatised as a betrayal. By taking imaginary Offence, you are not only claiming Virtue, but also positioning yourself as the Victim and the other party as the Perpetrator. This mobilises semi-instinctive behaviour on the part of bystanders, namely to root for the underdog. For reasons of both ambition and self-preservation, therefore, everyone must condemn everything else as much as possible; the greatest virtue is imputed to the one who is the most easily outraged.

It is entirely impossible not to give Offence to someone who understands how the game is played. If the Offendee makes the rules for what constitutes Offence, all he needs to do is to define Offence in terms of whatever his opponent has just said. That is, the arrow is fired first and the bull’s-eye painted on the barn door afterwards. His taking of Offence is non-negotiable, and any attempt to suggest that he “lighten up” becomes a fresh, and even more serious, Offence.

All discussion then resembles the kind of Fifties fairground challenge in which you had to move a loop of metal on a handle along a contorted wire connected to a battery and a bell; if the loop touched the wire, the bell rang and you lost. So too here: when someone’s words touch the conducting wire of your Offence, the bell of your righteous indignation will ring. If he fails to give Offence, this can only mean that the challenge is not sufficiently difficult; so put some more twists into the wire and make him try again.

In our allegedly democratic age, the prickly amour-propre of the duelling aristocrat who finds insult to his honour in every conceivable utterance is reborn in the prickly amour-propre of the querulous woman, gay or person of colour who finds offence to his or her “identity” in every conceivable utterance.

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