The Art of Offense | Opinion

We've never met, but I love the work of the English poet T.S. Eliot, and I'm sure he would hate me. I know this because Eliot was both a poet of rare gifts and a vicious anti-Semite. Letting his words seep into me means trying to absorb the good and developing antibodies for the bad. It's hard, but it's worth the effort.

These sentiments used to be clichés. They are now grounds for cancelation, the process where views and people labeled as "problematic" are not just debated, but erased from public view. This rising desire to purge all that offends is a threat to the art that is our guide into the future. Culture should always be addition, rather than subtraction. Adding new voices is essential, and erasing old ones is to be complicit in civilizational amnesia.

This trend has only accelerated in recent years. Everyone from young adult authors to old film classics to arguably the most famous writer in the world has been hauled before online tribunals to answer for crimes of commission or omission. In these kangaroo courts, the verdict always comes in "guilty." It isn't so much a checkmate as flipping over the whole chess board. The more it is indulged, the fewer moves will be available to all of us.

One of the awful ironies of this moment is that it is the very institutions whose brief is to champion the tradition of debate and diversity that now betray that calling with gusto. They are failing us. From the press to the university to organs of media and the world of museums and the doyennes of Hollywood, the space to dissent is shrinking. Shakedowns like the one currently plaguing the Poetry Foundation, an organization meant to promote verse that is being attacked for a whole host of irrelevant thoughtcrimes, are waged because they work. Organizations need to hold strong in the face of enormous pressure. Early returns are discouraging.

Of course, the forest of ideas needs gardening. Of course, some ideas truly are beyond the pale. Curatorship is essential. There are lines, and discerning them is more art than science. But our bias should be towards letting as many flowers bloom as possible, even if we have to deal with some weeds along the way.

Not all charges of prejudice are spurious. Some are very real and demonstrate that genius is no guarantor of morality. The anti-Semitism of Dostoyevsky and Alice Walker, of Richard Wagner and Amiri Baraka and the racism of writers too numerous to count amount to permanent stains on the beauty of their works. Still, the works endure. These are gnarled and twisted branches that have produced fruit generations have found nourishing.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain Getty Images

We think of works of art and the institutions that have sustained them as strong and entrenched, but they are actually very precarious. Shakespeare without champions is just a hunk of tree pulp and ink. Strident voices that threaten shame in the present wield a veto over the seemingly compromised beauties of the past. How to fight back?

The first step is to build a culture where offense is seen as a way of learning rather than a cause for censure. Of course, curatorship is necessary. There is much that is toxic in our national conversation, and not every Twitter troll is Titian. But the basic assumption should be that culture is a chorus—not a soliloquy. Art and artists need room to think and create. The language of censure sounds so shrill and stale because workshopped dogma will never hold the verve and style of a mind daring to plot its own course.

Next, we need to become full-throated advocates for the autonomy of art. Confusing art with politics is bad for both and will create a public square dulled by conformity and marred by groupthink. Artists more concerned with being correct than chasing the truth as they see it rob us of our common inheritance. Anything and anyone that treats an opinion as dangerous will eventually make it dangerous to have opinions.

The danger of erasing everything that offends the antic enthusiasm of the moment is that we rub out records of change and growth. Yesterday's revolutionaries are today's reactionaries. The best art lasts for all time, but it is also a chronicle of change over time. People of the past (and the present!) might hold views we consider troubling, but they were (and are) just as brilliant and daring, thoughtful and mindful, as ourselves.

The more of these masterpieces we can get our hands on, the better. We enlarge our horizons by lingering in their margins. Where would we be without Mark Twain and Kerry James Marshall, James Baldwin and Herman Melville?

Ultimately, these eccentrics are the secret sharers of our democracy and the last line of defense against a rising illiberalism. They whisper that the truest radical is she who dares to think for herself. They insist that the building of common ground, not the scorching of earth, is the highest calling of free men and women.

For that all-important task, pick White Noise over White Fragility.

Ari Hoffman is a writer in New York and a columnist at the Forward, where he covers politics and culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.