The Essential Art of Not Taking Offense
A recent controversy surrounding the stand-up comedy group All-India Bakchod (‘fuck senseless’) caused them to take down an inflammatory video of a roast they did from YouTube. My Hindi is intermediate, not good enough to follow Indian stand-up comedy, which is a huge pity: it is a cultural phenomenon that is rising like a fire-breathing dragon in the New India, a welcome appropriation from what I am henceforth calling the American Raj, our unstoppable cultural hegemony that digs deeper, spreads thicker as economies improve, and lives become more comfortable, decent lifestyles more affordable. But unlike the British Empire there will never be a satyagraha to get rid of a chameleonic hydra that appropriates almost as much as it is appropriated from. (Well, not really almost. A little bit, really.)
The now all-India famous troupe began an open letter to the Internet like this:
“I might not agree with you, but I will defend to death my right
to get offended. How dare you? Bahaar mil.” — Desi Voltaire
Desi means Indian. Bahaar mil transliterates to “meet me outside.” That much I understand. *head sway*
I love that India has evolved to the point that these guys can call themselves Fuck Senseless in the first place; it’s certainly an edgier name than Saturday Night Live or College Humor. Indian culture’s Islamified attitude toward sex has been a longstanding hypocrisy; you couldn’t see a couple kiss on screen when I first came here. Now they’re bonking away in trailers splashed on monitors across the ten of thousands of malls that have sprouted everywhere, it seems.
I have watched my share of live stand-up comedy. I have worked with a few stand-up comedians in L.A. Rarely have I been outright offended — go ahead, Louis, call me a faggot; you’re too charming not to be forgiven, and furthermore you’re right. But I will hand it to a hilarious Punjabi comedian I saw at the Canvas Laugh Club in Delhi few weeks ago. He socked it to me, hard: toward the end of his set he took out a guitar and sang “jingles” about various religious groups and political parties; he’s an atheist, a rarity in religion-soaked India, and India was heading into elections — political jingles were competing with winter wedding drums for attention.
After slaughtering a sacred cow each for every niche of Indian culture, he introduced a ditty entitled Why White People Miss Their Slaves. My back stiffened. The venue was huge, near capacity. I was the only white person there.
Most white people in India are stared at constantly, monitored, commented on and gossiped about like celebrities. You get used to it. I didn’t need to look beyond my peripheral vision to know that most eyes in the hall were on me and what my reaction was going to be. It’s fine for the Punjabi comic to insult them, sort of; but I am an honored guest in this country, a sacred cow in my own right.
The song was in Hindi, but I heard the N word clearly enough. He played on it with a Hindi word like nagar (‘city’) or less likely nigam (‘company’). The jingle was sung too fast and over too quickly for me to catch what the precise pun was.
My mind instantly erupted in indignant flames so hot they rapidly spread to the rest of my body. My forefathers not only never owned slaves, you bastard, they lost their lives on Civil War battlefields fighting for the Union. My father’s living room is a memorial to those fallen: a battle-scarred Union flag is framed over the mantelpiece; the rest of the room is a cabinet of Civil War curios so geeky it’s embarrassing, more so than the wooden decoy ducks and the etchings of hunting dogs, if that’s possible. The one time I used the N word in my life, when I was thirteen and testing the limits with my parents at the dinner table — out of earshot of the African houseman who had just served us dinner, granted, but he was very well paid and treated — I was instantly sent to my room. How dare you? Bahaar mil!
All eyes on me, I put my head in my hands and shook it rather theatrically. But the shaking felt good. My inner Minister for Offense laughed at me, clapped me on the back, called me an overly sensitive freak. I laughed back. Okay, you got me. And that’s what your real purpose is. Well done.
I like to say I am blessedly cursed with hypersensitivity. I am so sensitive I am sensitive about being sensitive. On the one hand, it is the core of my creative process, the engine behind whatever talent I have. I see the world’s subtleties with many more gradations than non-hypersensitives. I frequently process information with too much nuance; I read more than necessary into the most ordinary interactions and events, find too many layers, intentions, subtexts. But I also see more angles — and even more pop up if I’m allowed to hash something out in discussion — and that leads to more potential. “You speak in hypertext,” said a former lover of mine who struggled to follow my tangential thinking and speech, “and I’m summa cum laude from Harvard.” Most people come away from confrontational scenes they’ve been tangled in wishing they’d said this or that in retort but never got the chance. The way my quivering, hair-trigger mind works — and probably because I am a professional dramatist — more often than not I actually get to say those lines in the moment.
“You are funny, but you are nasty,” a human resources officer from my Indian client’s company said while reading some of my posts on this site about my adventures in her country. I like to think I don’t tackle people or issues that don’t deserve harsh criticism: no one had much sympathy for Muammar “Mama” Gaddafi, whom before his downfall I turned into an old drag queen addicted to muumuus, frustrated at being constantly rejected from RuPaul’s Drag Race; likewise, Marcus “Marcia” Bachmann warrants nothing less than derision for his ex-gay ministries; religions everywhere have wrought too much evil over the millennia to deserve any understanding or tolerance. As for my “evil twin” Andrew Sullivan… actually, I don’t dislike him, not really. It’s more the physical resemblance, the fact we’re both man lovers, both opinionated writers, and because he’s a big ol’ bottom and we tops like to tease them almost as much as their fellow bottoms do.
But can I swallow my own medicine? It depends. Usually not on a direct interpersonal level, and certainly not from people close to me; the paper cuts from family and lovers wound the deepest. The few who dare post negative comments to my pieces on the PFC site, or in response to comments I leave on other sites, are usually nuts or plain stupid. I normally won’t engage with them; I might be nasty to assholes, but I’m not a bully.
Like All-India Bakchod, I also succumbed to pressure from the Internet and removed a scathing piece I wrote a few years ago. It has only happened once. The post was about Iran, the asshole’s asshole. I scribbled it in reaction to Farid Zacharia’s ass-kissing documentary on CNN, in which among other misguided paeans he stated an absolutely erroneous cliché that is almost the tagline from the country’s Ministry of Tourism: “Iran is a great civilization.”
I took it down because the comments to that post became wearying, they were constantly appearing on our main page because of rules we’ve set up for comments on this site, and it’s sort of piece isn’t what I care to write any more — the best thing about a blog is how it grows you personally by holding up a self-polished mirror, and I’ve grown up. I’m not sorry I offended so many Iranians; fuck them and their outrageously homophobic culture. It hasn’t been a great civilization in centuries, if not millennia. There’s nothing more irritating than a country that thinks it’s the center of the universe, the cradle of civilization, and yet they can’t even cook a single truly tasty dish. And Iranian disdain for Indians, who cook like gods, is revolting, made all the sadder because Indians hold Iranians in such high regard. The one well-written comment I got out of the entire avalanche of backlash the article generated was from a Persian: “You’re completely right, damn you. But you’re still an asshole.”
Because that comment was fair and balanced, I wasn’t offended by it. I remember it, certainly, but I wasn’t offended in the least; I laughed and nodded. Conversely, when my sister made a quick comment the other day about how I talk too much — I can barely get a word in edgewise when she’s holding court — I had to bite my tongue, and fought the instinct to run to the bathroom to splash my face with cold water to cool the outrage. A single throwaway comment like that from a loved one can open diluvial torrents of roiling, frothing memories and resentments. Umbrage in my family is treated like fine wine that ferments best in extreme cold over decades.
These days my inner Minister for Offense is largely responsible for holding me back from responding with excessive vitriol at the most minimal perceived slight. When I was younger, I simply Napalmed my opponent with nastiness and walked away.
Wait: Minister for Offense? Am I hearing voices? Why, yes!
We all have an inner voice that is largely responsible for many of our actions; if you’re schizophrenic you have more than one, and it can take form in a way you believe is as incarnate as the true real world is to everyone else. We should be very careful of what our inner voice says to us: we might not become that outraged if we saw things with more detachment and less baggage. Our inner voice can be extremely biased, opinionated, judgmental, mendacious, highly dissonant, histrionic and, in my case, a total rageaholic. Would this be someone you’d want to hang out with if it became real person outside of you?
You can harness your inner voice, calm it down, use it against itself, or rather for its own betterment. So far I’ve vested my inner voice with two different personas. The Minister for Offense is a strapping, back slapping good old boy who takes nothing seriously, whose irreverence is so contagious it’s entirely acceptable, utterly inoffensive. He makes almost everything permissible. “Bro,” he chortles while pouring me a shot of tequila and laying out a line of coke, “are you really going to respond to the Native American woman who called you ‘morally inferior’ because you said an eagle-feather headdress was no more sacred than your slouch beanie? She can’t even punctuate! There are three spelling mistakes in four lines! You sure you don’t have something else to write other than comments on HuffPo?”
The other aspect of my inner voice that I’ve countered with a persona of its own is a result of other toxic byproducts of hypersensitivity: excessive, unsubstantiated insecurity and anxiety. The Minister for Insecurity and Anxiety is a Park Avenue socialite, an amalgam of my mother’s friends, and probably my mother herself, who doesn’t laugh as heartily as the Minister for Offense, but like him she dismisses all fears and paranoias out of hand. “Oh, darling, please,” she says, waving her hand and pouring me another glass of wine. “You’re fabulous. Yes, you’re a bit different — okay, a lot different — but screw ‘em if they don’t get it. So you’ve had a few setbacks — okay, a lot of setbacks! Who hasn’t? Just shush. Don’t you have something better to do than care what others think?”
Both of my inner ministers staunchly abide by Italian Prime Minister Guilio Andreotti’s famous quote: “Never over-dramatize things, everything can be fixed. Keep a certain detachment from everything. The important things in life are very few.”
It helps that the viral trend right now is the “zero fucks to give” movement. It seems o have emerged from forums like Reddit and 4Chan. Its apotheosis is Mark Manson’s hugely popular The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, a piece I wish I’d written; unlike Andrew Sullivan, Manson is my kind of thinker and writer: clear, edgy, irreverently compassionate, passionate, not noodle-brained. He can call me faggot any day of the week. Whatever, darling, says the Minister for Insecurity and Anxiety. He may have over 120,000 more readers than you do, but that doesn’t mean you’re not talented. Or loved. I love you! Stop comparing yourself to others. Go take a warm shower; you positively reek of pathetic right now.
My life is littered with discarded friends and lovers I once couldn’t live without — hypersensitives raised with psychological abuse have more severe attachment issues than others — who have offended me a few too many times to stay within my life’s ongoing narrative. I haven’t been discarded myself by a fraction of the number of people I’ve torched.
I don’t like this aspect of myself. I need a Minister for Compassion and Understanding, too, but every persona I’ve auditioned for the role has this saccharine, sanctimonious attitude that quickly gets punched in the face. I’ve tried to cast him as a stoic Zen master, but I get little response from that character — he just sweeps the floor. Doesn’t even shrug. Doesn’t accept or reject my offer of employment in my inner ministries, I don’t even get a cryptic haiku or koan. He simply has zero fucks to give.
The Internet has put the human dialectic on steroids. As a result, it’s a cesspool of offense. We’re saturated with opinions and outrage and comments, holier-than-thou Native American women wearing whitey’s track suits and sneakers but allowing themselves to scream at Ralph Lauren for cultural appropriation for a fashion line, of all things. If the Internet were an event, it would be the oilfields of Kuwait in 1991 being lit, doused and lit again. Kanye is pissed at Beck and the Grammys, and the Internet is even more pissed at Kanye, and takes it out on his choice of women and baby names. And spiral twisty, down, down… Dinah my dear… Will Kanye be forced to kneel in apology to Beck, as he did to Taylor Swift? Dude, that’s so funny: you were so outraged you were just about to retweet that stupid HuffPo piece about Kanye with the comment, ‘Like Beck isn’t an artist.’ HAHAHA! Glad I stopped you. Here, toke on this kush, just awesome. Have you ever even watched the Grammies? Wait, it’s spelled ‘Grammys.’
I’m pleased to say the Minister for Offense doesn’t LOL or use emojis.
Despite the burning oil fields of outrage, I’m in utter awe of the Internet. I dance around it naked, offering sacrifices; it is my golden calf. Despite the seemingly relentless discord, the beheadings, the truly immoral things trafficked on the Deep Web, the creeps and stalkers, the raging right-wing psychos, the annoying paranoid left-wing conspiracy theorists, the misleading activists and the delusional creationists, the Internet has done so much to advance the world as a unified civilization that it obliterates all its wrongheaded byproducts. It stores the whole of humanity’s knowledge: Our history, our thoughts, our art, our crackpots, our crackpot philosophers explained in 8-bit humor — I’ll admit that that Wisecrack YouTube channel (see link) has elucidated so much more than my school professors could about philosophy and its history. And for free.
East Indians are the most exotic of humans, to the core. I marvel at how they honk and screech on the road, cutting in, grabbing whatever space they can — I like driving so much that I call myself a motorist, but I would never do it here. Yet I cannot recollect in the nearly thirty years I’ve been coming to this country that I’ve ever seen a single road-rage incident of the kind of you come across daily in the West.
It’s the same with their work relationships. The way they speak to each other at my client’s office in Delhi would never be tolerated in the States. Maybe Italy. But it’s like water off a duck’s back to Indians: no sooner is an offensive stream of invective in the imperative tense issued, than everyone is swaying their heads, smearing each other with birthday cake blessings, and playing billiards together.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no word for ‘umbrage’ in Hindi.
Still, you so much as look sideways at their gods, poke fun of their sacrednesses, their religious institutions, and it’s death. The only ideology Americans are willing to die for is freedom. Indians would rather eternal bondage than give up their magical beliefs. Their lore is littered with heroes who starved to death rather than eat a cow.
My current daydream is an India free from religion — the whole world, too, of course, but it is a chronic disease here. It’s a dream shared by people like that brave atheist Punjabi stand-up comic; it’s one thing for me to declare myself and atheist and make fun of religions, quite another for him. An India free of magical thinking is unimaginable right now, but the way the country is currently reinventing itself and modernizing was also once inconceivable. Back when I first came here, it seemed they would be forever spinning Gandhi’s rickety handloom, isolating themselves from the progress of the outside world almost as resolutely as North Korea.
What would happen if the American Raj sweeps away the infinite ancient idols of India and her people stopped being offended over religious issues and focused instead on interpersonal offense, the way the West does? Philosophically speaking, this is preferable; it will assure a lot less bloodshed, just more livid tweets and outraged comments online.
Comedians shouldn’t be censored and should never bow to censorship, but in the wake of the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo All-India Bakchod did the right thing. Had they been in the West, it would not have been the right thing; Sony was wrong to pull The Interview from theaters — the minute that happened, I predicted Amy Pascal’s resignation, which happened a few days ago because it should have. What she did was worse by far than anything North Korea could do.
I admire India for having evolved so far as to either be up in arms or celebrate comedy groups like All-India Bakchod and Canvas Laugh Factory, the group to which the Punjabi atheist comedian who managed to offend me belongs. I think we Americans could certainly do some evolving ourselves and learn to shrug off interpersonal offense as easily as Indians do. Many of those silly online lists of foreigners’ opinions claim that among America’s own excessive religiosity, its well-stocked supermarkets, its obscenely obese people, visitors find we are overly sensitive to criticism, and that makes us overly PC. We dish it out to the rest of the world with the vengeful wrath of a Michael Bay denouement, but heaven forbid you have anything but praise and awe for ‘Murica. Even with a passport I have to watch myself.
I am not completely where I want to be with growing a thicker skin, but since the inner ministers took over my hypersensitivity isn’t hurting nearly as much. It’s been a long time since anyone has said, “You’re your own worst enemy, James, you know that?” — it was a cliché I heard frequently before.
My niece has inherited my trait — it runs strong in my family on Dad’s side. She has her struggles but they are less than mine when I was her age; she is being raised to cope with criticism and abuse from other children better than I was, far better. She is also lucky enough to benefit from the sort of modern parenting that is more compassionate and more nurturing than I was raised under.
Ultimately, I hope to see the day when I to get to the place wherein I have shed offense, whether given or taken, intended or accidental, altogether. In the meantime, I’ll just keep talking myself out of it.
Lead image: detail of photo by Irving Penn
Lovely article, full of gems. Thanks!
I agree. This is an excellent perspective.