In Defence of Taking Offence

Kate Pasola recounts a recent trip to Abu Dhabi and discusses what she learned about the importance of taking offence – in an era that’s all too comfortable with causing it.

Feature by Kate Pasola | 10 Jul 2013
  • In Defence of Taking Offence

It’s important first to clarify that despite taking exception with the particulars of Richard Dawkins’ teachings, the startling work that he does to protect the rights of those oppressed by religion mustn’t go unaddressed. Forced marriage, unnecessary hymen reconstruction surgery, genital mutilation, honour-killings, compromised sex education, and oppression of women and homosexuals are only a handful of the bitter symptoms of fundamentalist religious practice. Dawkins administers logic as the antidote to these problems and for this work alone he deserves recognition.

However, perhaps, when Dawkins boldly denounces the right of the religious to take offence, we should approach the proposition more critically. A quote from his talk in UC Berkeley: “So what if my feelings are hurt? Does that give me a right to prevent others from expressing their opinion?” inspired a whole culture of offence-rejection. Comedians like Louis C.K. and Steve Hughes expressed their exasperation with the offended, which unfortunately fed a troupe of ignoramuses – who’d clearly misinterpreted the debate – exactly what they needed to excuse socially impertinent behaviour. Cue the grand finale, a cacophony of numbskulls yelling, “You didn’t like it when I laughed at you for being such a slut? Stop being so easily offended or quit listening then, dumb bitch!

But the self-centred approach to cultural difference has graver consequences. Take the inexorable westernisation of Abu Dhabi, a predominantly Muslim city. Abu Dhabi’s knitting together of East and West has led to the evolution of a cultural conglomerate. Mosques designed by Britons; the heady scent of oud oil bottled and disseminated in shopping malls; Muslim women pairing traditional abaya gowns with Jimmy Choos and come-hither false eyelashes; teenagers rebelling against the hijab with under-padding to imply concealment of lustrous hair. Traditions are diluted if inconvenient, and sprinkled with European dazzle-dust if deemed financially stagnant.

That’s not to say the Euro-Arabia patchwork quilt isn’t beautiful. The panorama of locals in traditional dress gliding against the glassy cityscape is electric. Shores of the Persian Gulf transformed into hazy Parisian boulevards with terracotta skies are dreamy. But the land of juxtaposition is often a sparring ground for disagreeing cultures, and that’s when expression of offence is necessary to maintain fairness and reason.

What constitutes liberation and equality is geographically and culturally specific.

Consider the Emirati indecency code. In public it’s expected that Muslim women wear a full length abaya to maintain a modest appearance and that non-Muslims are covered from shoulder to knee. An influx of ex-pats, international workforce and tourists – to whom the dress-code is irrelevant – has led to frequent incidences of ignorance and opposition. Voices of those offended within the Emirati population – a 10% minority – have been hushed, leading to the creation of the @UAEDresscode Twitter, which expresses the concerns of lost tradition and the resultant offence felt.

Deviants of the dress-code feel oppressed by the regulations, liberating themselves in western dress. Muslims feel oppressed by exposed flesh and its frequent side-order of objectification, and liberated when concealed under an abaya. So whose offence is less valid? What constitutes liberation and equality is geographically and culturally specific. When opinions are at odds, the west-is-best attitude isn’t as fruitful or forward-thinking as we’d like to feel.

On top of the dress code disputes, Saadiyat Island (off the coast of Abu Dhabi) is undergoing a tourism reconstruction project, including the commissioning of its own Louvre. The tricky little issue of the matter lies in religious resistance. Islam hasn’t been overly keen on the vast majority of European art sincethe  Prophet Muhammad decided figurative design didn’t cut the mustard at around 622AD. Islam firmly discourages artistic depiction of religious figures and sentient beings. That in mind, it’s difficult to imagine an affable reception to one of Picasso’s raunchiest, or a cheeky homoerotic Renaissance number.

This seems to have been conveniently overlooked by curators at the Louvre. You’d think such disharmony between Eastern and Western preference would encourage development of a culturally sensitive collection. Because surely there’s no need to piss off even more locals, right? Wrong. Head curator, Laurence Des Cars, has firmly stated that no artistic subject will be off-limits – including sexuality and religion. Of course. The Muslim population will be relieved, I’m sure, to hear that the collection “won’t try to shock just to be shocking.” Fingers crossed she’ll steer clear of 'offending just to be offensive' too.

Of course, one of the main roles of art is to shock. It’s a beautiful little troll that exposes human truths to those who need to see them. It integrates cultures and catalyses social change. It’s particularly useful in combatting violation of human rights and oppression. Indisputably, encouragement of tolerance and equality are both excellent motivations for dancing with the devil and risking offence. But in the case of the Louvre, one feels compelled to question the motives of the decision-makers. If the curators aren’t “shocking to be shocking,” indeed why are they shocking? Does it have anything to do with tailoring the collection to a western audience of tourists and ex-pats? Shocking to make money?

Abu Dhabi’s cultural tussles directly exemplify the power of expressing offence. Let Dawkins scorn the offended, let the offended feel offended from such scolding. But, if Abu Dhabi teaches us – and Dawkins – any sort of lesson, it’s that we should never mute the offended in the interests of making money.

Now that’s just offensive.