Testing Muddy Waters


No, not the blues singer, he doesn’t need testing. He passed his examination long ago and got top marks for his music. I’m talking about testing muddy social waters.

The practice of being offensive and of being offended is big business today – but a difficult one to manage properly. You never can tell when an innocent remark will be used as a conversational tyre lever on you, and not in a kindly way. You’d think it would make a difference which end of the offending statement you were on, but in many cases it does not – you get to feel bad either way.

I have started to suspect that this is a form of manipulation – whether someone is using it as personal therapy or not is uncertain, but the twisting is still unpleasant. I don’t think there is anything a single writer can do to stop it over an entire planet, but it can at least be used for science. I am going to perform an experiment.

I hasten to add that I am not going to go out to try to offend people – quite the opposite. I am going to wait in the shadows of a conversational circle until someone makes a particularly unexceptionable remark. Perhaps the weather, or an enquiry about the changes in bus timetables…or a hobby discussion. I am going to zero into one particular thought and then pointedly tell the person in front of others that I find it offensive.

I’m not a particularly good actor, but I will try to compress fury, scorn, and humiliation into my voice and make my eyes flash defiance. All the best Victorian heroes and heroines do the eye flashing. I may need a few weeks practise in front of a mirror to get it right. I won’t go so far as to demand an apology, for fear that I get one, but I will try to judge just the right moment to stalk off; right before I am forced to admit that it is all a put-up job.

I’m curious to see just how far the pretence of offended dignity can be taken. And just how many conversations I can control using it. Stephen Potter would have been interested in the results…


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