- Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship
J. M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country was a brilliant novel. It was distinguished by a passion for the dry earthiness, the upfrontness, in-your-faceness of human existence, and by a simultaneous, yet paradoxical infatuation with signs, texts, and the endless deferral of brute fact. This same tension runs throughout Coetzee’s volume of essays on censorship, but here it is frustrating rather than enticing, annoying rather than suggestive. For Coetzee turns out, in these essays, to be a theoretical fence-sitter of a kind that makes all intellectual effort redundant. He does have arguments but he seems whimsically to undermine them—so that in the end he lands up high and dry, deftly buggered by the fence post that he should have scaled.
Now my bet is that Coetzee, and one or two readers besides, will be offended by my last remark, and that the editors of this journal will have a ripe old time deciding whether or not to strike it. According to Coetzee, we take offense when our dignity is compromised (pp. 14–15) and when we feel powerless to avert this, or else when there is “the experience or premonition of being robbed of power” (p. 3). In this he is just wrong. Certainly, if Coetzee turns out to be offended by my remark, this may well be because it compromises his dignity and his scholarly standing, and with it his reputation and power. But what of others who may be offended by my crudity and nastiness? Those who think the remark gratuitously unkind and entirely unwarranted will also think it offensive, but not because it, or remarks of this type, undermine their power or compromise their dignity—nor yet on account of any such premonition. They could be offended even though they have no intention of ever writing a book, so that there is no threat and certainly no premonition of similar treatment at the hands of an unscrupulous reviewer.
Their offense, so it seems to me, will take root in the belief that my remark is gratuitously hostile and without foundation. If so, they will take offense in just the way I do at racist comments—without being threatened by the remarks and without my dignity or power being compromised. The offense that I take has everything to do with the fact that the expressed sentiments are without any rational basis and are damaging to the reputation of people who deserve better.
Coetzee considers this (or a closely similar) account of offense in the opening pages of his book and simultaneously accepts and rejects it. “I myself am (and am also, I would hope, to a degree not) an intellectual of this kind,” he tells us. And he goes on to say that although capable of being offended, he “does not particularly respect his own being-offended” (p. 5). But why not, if, as he suggests, there may be excellent grounds for his outrage and offense? Ordinary self-respect requires that, in a case where there are good reasons for it, one should take the fact of one’s being offended seriously. One sad aspect of the otherwise sage response to the current rage for victimhood is that there is [End Page 482] a tendency to lose touch with the fact that there can be good grounds for moral outrage, and that when there are, one’s outrage and offense make perfectly justifiable moral claims on those who offend you.
Despite these caveats, the book does have many virtues. For one thing, the essays range widely and confidently over a broad range of topics that are not just of considerable interest but which refiect the scope of the problem of censorship. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Catharine MacKinnon on pornography, Erasmus and Foucault on madness and reason, Osip Mandelstam’s famous capitulation to Stalin, Geoffery Cronjé’s blueprint for apartheid, censorship in South Africa, André Brink’s ideas about the relation of the writer to the state, are just some of the...