'On giving offence'

Posted by September Blue Friday, 6 April 2007

(Cornhill, July 1884.)

In a social point of view when you have said that a man is an offensive fellow you have said the worst of him, or that can be said. He may be in his private capacity a forger or, as is much more likely, a murderer; but, so far as his attitude to society is concerned, the revelation of that circumstance would put him in no worse position; on the contrary, while his character would in no wise be deteriorated, it would invest him with a certain dramatic interest, and, even if the worst came to the worst, it would be very pleasant to see him hanged.

Everyone knows an offensive fellow at the first glance: he can no more conceal his disposition than the skunk can deodorize himself; in nine cases out of ten indeed it is evident in his face, the expression of which, like a tavern-sign, unfortunately frank, informs us that sour wine is sold within; but if not, he has only to open his mouth and out flies the truth about him; for this hateful creature always prefers to say a disagreeable thing to you instead of an agreeable one, and cannot hold his tongue.
Fairly short, so I'm typing this one out in full. The rest is below the fold.

To this class belong bullies and backbiters, in whose favour no one has a word to say, and at whose decease the very ingrates move their tardy lips in thankfulness. Under these circumstances it seems strange that the adjective 'inoffensive' should not carry more praise with it; whereas when applied to one's fellow-creatures it has rather a contemptuous significance. The term 'good-natured' is not very eulogistic; as the poet most familiar to my boyhood rather abruptly observes,

Oh! what is mere Goodnature but a Fool?

but 'Inoffensiveness' if personified and described in any song would probably come off even worse.

The explanation of this is, no doubt, that everyone, it is felt, should have what is called 'a kick in him;' the capability, not indeed of giving offence, but, if it is offered to us, of giving it back again. There are degrees between the hornet and the humble-bee, and everyone should have a sting in his tail, ready for use on occasion.

I cannot help thinking, however, that there is another reason for the deprecation of inoffensive folk. They have such a want of self-assertion that they never give the least ground for quarrel. And though it is only the morose and evil disposed who like a grudge, there are a good many of us who like a grievance. to take offence where no offence is meant, and where they know none is meant, is also a great joy to some natures; and these naturally resent a state of things wherein even by the unmost ingenuity the intention of hurting their feelings cannot be imputed.

To the grievance-monger there is nothing so objectionable as an explanation .It is putting out the fire beside which he nurses his wrath and keeps it warm. In the atmosphere of his discontent his wrong has assumed gigantic proportions, and it is very disagreeable to me to see it melt away in the wholesome air of common-sense. When we see a play on the stage built up on some misunderstanding which three words would dissipate, we exclaim 'How absurd! How unnatural!' but these people weave a life-drama for themselves out of these very materials, and take their pleasure in a maze of feelings warranted of their own manufacture. They are always on the look-out for slights; a depreciatory observation, a glance which can be construed to imply contempt, is at once furnished with a personal application, and provides them with their desideratum; even silence has been known to furnish it. The 'Hurt' family, to which they all belong, has many branches, but the type is the same throughout. If fortune, so far from being 'outrageous,' has neither stings nor arrows, there are at least nettles to be found, and they proceed to divest themselves of their last garment and roll in them. Nothing is more amusing than to see these people unexpectedly confronted with a real grievance: some elephantine person who is accustomed to put his foot down, and is not particular where he puts it. They are like boys who, 'ranging the woods to start a hare,' come on a sudden upon a fierce old bear, who 'lies amid bones and blood.' The homeopathic remedy which the schoolmaster aplies to whining children – the 'giving them something to cry for' – is most efficacious. It must be said, however, for this class of persons, that they are ready enough to accept an apology; which indeed does them no harm, since they can discover a new cause of offence within the next five minutes.
The lines about the boys who stumble across a bear are from Thomas Babbington's poem
'Horatius' (popular in its time if somewhat less well-known now), which describes the lone Horatius Cocles single-handedly defending the bridge over the Tiber from the Etruscans.
A much more contemptible variety is to be found in those who refuse to be conciliated; who will not take those words, alike gentle and simple, 'I am sorry,' in the sense in which they were uttered. This generally arises from petty egotism; the sense of quarrel seems to invest them with a certain importance, which they have no other means of attaining; they prefer to be unreasonable, and therefore to some extent extraordinary, rather than to return to their original position of insignificance.

There is still a worse class, who seek in discord a channel for their evil temper, which is always at the flood. they have a bad word for everybody, but a particularly bad one (which is also generally a falsehood) for the object of their private rancour. The Corsican, ignorant, idle, and venomous, is the head of this charming family. The art of taking offence in his case is not only carried to the most delicate perfection, but is hereditary.

Nevertheless, a certain King of Scotland must needs be placed at the hed of this profession, inasmuch as he took offence by proxy. Perceiving one of his courtiers to have lost an eye, he inquired the reason. 'It was put out by a fencing master,' was the reply.

'And is that man alive?' inquired his majesty significantly.

Whereupon the courtier, recalled to a sense of what was due to himself as a nobleman and a Christian, at once went and murdered the innocent offener.

It must be remembered in charity that accidents of birth and blood, or even family misfortunes, make people quick to take offence. When one's father has been hanged, an allusion to a rope, even by one who has never heard of the deplorable occurrence, is apt to grate on the ear. A personal blemish or deformity will, in a sensitive nature, have the same unfortunate effect. One of the kindest men I ever knew, and certainly the very last to give offence to any human being, was once a victim to this circumstance. When a boy, he was on the Chain Pier at Brighton with his mother, a lady also of exceptionally gentle nature, when an umbrella blew inside out chanced to excite their mirth. A woman sitting next to them at once arose and favoured them with this amazing speech, 'An ill-bred woman, and a worse taught child!' They then perceived for the first time that she had what is called a port-wine stain on her cheek, to which, I suppose, as in the case of Byron and his club foot, this poor lady imagined that everyone was directing their attention. An apology was out of the question; but I am very sure that the child and his parent suffered far more than the injured party.

Misunderstandings which might easily be rectified are often followed, in the mean time, by actions which admit of no remedy. In a country town, where I once lived as a boy, the virulence with which two men hated one another was quite a proverb. Mr. A. and Dr. B. had once been intimate friends, and though one was a Tory and the other a Radical, had agreed to differ: they could even afford to rally one another upon the vehemence of their respective qualifications.

'For all your high and dry principles,' said B., when the news came of Queen Caroline's acquittal, 'you will have to illuminate your house to-night.'

'There shall not be a candle,' returned A., defiantly.

The next morning Dr. B. met his friend, and congratulated him, since the violence of the mob had been very great, that he had thought better of his resolution, and taken the prudent course of lighting up his house.

'I did nothing of the kind,' said A.

'Then I don't know what you call lighting up; it was so well done, however, that I hear the mob gave you three cheers.'

'That is false,' replied A. excitedly, and – not to go into painful details – a blow was given and returned.

The fact was that A. had gone out to dinner, and his wife, in spite of his injunctions, and preferring unbroken windows to principles intact, had lit up the house, without his knowledge. A. and B. went to their graves without exchanging another word with each other.

After all, those who speak with the deliberate intention of giving offence – the 'Roughs' of polite society – are not numerous. Some women will, however, 'say things' to persons of their own sex which to our ears sound outrageous, and would not be tolerated for a moment by men from a man. The reason of this is that though women have a reputation for badinage (as they have, less deservedly, for 'tact') they shrink from all retort, save the 'retort courteous.' They cannot reply when a disagreeable thing is said, 'Well, upon my word, you're a nice agreeable ladylike person, you are;' or even 'Do you really think that remark of yours exhibits the desire, so insisted on by moralists, to increase the happiness of the human family?' There are many ways of stopping the mouth of a disagreeable male, besides putting your fist in it, which are denied to the gentler sex.

The consciousness of this – of there being no remedy in case of the thing going too far – is perhaps the reason why women do not rally one another, as men do; with a latter a certain good-humoured chaff, among old friends, is as the bread of life to social intercourse; women chaff the other sex, but not their own. They say 'our tempers will not stand it; we are less good-natured to one another than you are;' but the real cause is, I believe, as I have stated it.

He who has the wish to please need never fear giving offence; those who take it under such circumstances mistake egotism for self-respect, moroseness for dignity, and are among the chief obstructives to human enjoyment.