Some time ago I dropped a rather unfunny joke into a technical document I was writing (I seem to remember that the same “joke” appears in my book on WBEM/CIM). It was necessary to distinguish between is-a and has-a relationships and I was using is married to as an example of a relationship. The document was being written at a time when Ontario, the province in which I live, was debating the dull topic of homosexual marriage and, having explained the concept of the is married to relationship as being between an instance of the class MALE and an instance of class FEMALE, I put in a footnote saying something like “except in Ontario”. OK, I didn’t say that it was a good joke but, even if it’s not taken as a joke at all, the footnote is true.
Anyway, some time later I had a somewhat shamefaced person from our Personnel Department on the telephone to say that one of the readers of my document had been offended by the footnote and had made a formal complaint about it. My first reaction was to defend the comment as being literally true and then, feeling sorry for the complainant, since it is unlucky to be stupid, I immediately re-issued the document without the offensive footnote.
This type of issue came up again recently when I was discussing the whole area of offensive behaviour with a couple of colleagues. My desk is open-plan (a euphemism for a Dilbert-like cubical) and from time-to-time the company organises so-called General Information Sessions within my earshot. These are often preceded by rather objectionable music and I made the point that, if we were to ensure that no one is ever offended, then that music should be stopped. This led to an interesting remark from one of my colleagues, one to which I have been giving a great deal of thought since: she said that I could reasonably object to the words of a song but not to the music. I didn’t get the impression that she was quoting company policy here; she was stating her opinion.
To take a neutral art for a moment, consider pictures. If I cut out a pin-up of a unclad girl (or, presumably, boy) from a magazine and pinned it over my desk I think people could reasonably object. One of the pictures I do, however, have over my desk is the head of Venus from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. I only have Venus’ head and no one, to my knowledge, has taken offence. The entire picture, however, shews a naked Mars exhausted by love making lying across her lap with Venus looking calmly on without a misplaced hair. I suppose that this might well be offensive to some people.
This offence thing is difficult since it varies from culture to culture and I have no idea who will read my documents on is-a and has-a relationships or wander past my desk and eye my Venus pinup. In the USA, for example, depictions of violence don’t seem to be offensive whereas almost any unclad person is. In Holland, where I used to live, it seemed to be the opposite: nudity was normal, violence was offensive.
So, can music be offensive? The music itself rather than the words? Would my complaint at work about the music to which I’m subjected be less frivolous than that of the person who objected to my marriage “joke”? I think that the answer is “yes” in both cases. Music goes a lot deeper into the soul than most words (I exclude some poetry) and, in my wife’s words, much music offends in the way that a bad smell offends. It is pervasive and difficult to avoid.
When we have all stopped offending each other we will live in the blandest of worlds. As Alan Bennett has the Headmaster say at the end of Forty Years On: “Country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year. We have become a battery people, a people of under-privileged hearts fed on pap in darkness, bred out of all taste and season to savour the shoddy splendours of the new civility.”
I aspire to be that gentleman who never offends unintentionally. But one who avoids the shoddy splendours of my employer’s civility.