In Defense of Civil Offense

Ralph's Blog

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It seems there are an awful lot of people being offended in the papers these days. Johnny Hart, (author of the comic B.C.) to no oneís great surprise, once again let us know heís a Christian, and one who believes in the Easter story at that. The result is half a page of letters from offended Jews and Christians. The NY Education Department decided that Native American names for sports teams are offensive offended many in itself. A woman in a dress was offended by the people in a showís audience who failed to meet her standards of public apparel. Are we becoming an uncivil society, ready to take offense with the slightest provocation, or is this just the predictable result of rampant Political Correctness? My knee-jerk reaction, as a knee-jerk liberal, is to stand up and scream something obscene just to annoy the nincompoop who wants everyone to think like him. Or to be politically correct: him or her. Or even worse: s/he. Oddly enough, in a civilized society there are times when only being Civilly Offensive will do, because some things just canít be defended.

Before we go any farther, I need to define just what I mean by Civil Offense in this context. There must be a clear line drawn between the merely offensive and the destructive. As a child of the 60s I saw many people marching with signs protesting one thing or another, hurting no one and simply letting their opinions be known. This is Civil Offense in the sense I use it; enough to wake up a disinterested person. When you riot in the streets, bomb buildings or kill doctors to save the unborn you have crossed the line. The problem is to be offensive in an effective way. Complaining to your spouse over dinner only makes the spouseís digestion sour. Writing to the editor is better, but after a few months of reading an astute reader will notice a certain degree of repetition. If you want to get your point across in a way that will not be forgotten I would suggest you jump up and break into song!

Have you ever heard of Woody Guthrie, Utah Philips, John McCutcheon or David Rovics? The Union music they sing once so offended factory and mine owners that they bought politicians by the score, hired thugs with rocks and rifles or even called in the National Guard to stop the workers from singing. Those songs, written 50 and more years ago, are still being sung today. The tunes get into the crevices of your mind, biding their time until you find yourself whistling as you walk down the street, reminding you of the message the song carries. The civil rights movement spawned a body of music that deeply offended those who knew skin color was a mark of your place in this world. Protesters sang We Shall Overcome as they faced the dogs and fire hoses; some even went singing to their graves. Let us not forget Viet Nam, our last great musical war. Who of us that grew up in the 60s canít sing the chorus to Aliceís Restaurant and hasnít at some point embarrassed their children by jumping up and down shouting Kill! Kill! Kill!?

Offensive music has a long and proud history. Greek playwrights had the chorus singing some rather outrageous lyrics. Early Christian hymns really ticked off the Roman and Jewish elite. Waltzing, the first modern Western dance which allowed a man to put his arms around a woman in public, was considered "the rhythmic incantation of the Devil". Slavery spawned the spiritual, with it's subliminal messages of freedom laid over a religious base. Did you know that contemporary preachers railed against the young Bing Crosby? They knew that his sex charged ďcrooningĒ would betray their daughter's virtue and destroy society. The very word "jazz" was once considered obscene. One local folkieís satiric praise of Charlie Manson is, to his chagrin, his most popular song, but the black humor sets off some people who can't see through the satire. Then, of course, we all know Rap Music will wipe out what's left of civilization. Or will people in another 20 or 30 years yearn for that good old rap music, the stuff these young punks just can't seem to appreciate any more?

By now you should have the idea, if you believe in something, or simply do things a bit differently, you are inevitably going to offend someone who has a different set of beliefs. I happen to support gay rights and family values, and think a gay family is just as natural and acceptable as a traditional one. I also support plural marriages, seeing no reason love and commitment can't extend beyond two people. See, I just irritated a whole bunch of people, and no, I havenít put any of these philosophies into effect in my own life. Now those of you who own a copy of Rise Up Singing (the folk singerís bible) open it to page 239 and sing Gay Spirit with all those who agree with me. The rest of you start paging through and find another song and belt it out with gusto. Iíll even loan you my copy if you donít have one of you own. Then how about some coffee and donuts and we can talk about the issue without so much emotional freight. Itís awfully hard to stay mad at someone who has just been harmonizing with you.

Some people have to be really, really annoyed before they can take out their opinions and examine them. Others need a kick in the teeth to jump start the brain, and singing them a song is a lot more civilized than whacking them upside the head with a 2 by 4. So the next time you read or hear or see something that offends you, take the time to expose what's inside your skull to the fresh air before you start jumping up and down, gibbering and ranting about the moral decay of society and the dilapidated condition of the universe. If you still don't like it you have my permission and encouragement to Civilly Offend the offender with your own song or story. Life is a lot more interesting that way.

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