I follow John Cusack, an actor I’ve loved since I was fifteen, on Twitter. He tends to tweet a lot of quotes, to the point that this morning I complained that his massive amounts of tweets had drowned out my real posse, a bunch of writers mostly and some other friends and my sister (none of my other family is on it).
A quote this morning took up most of my brain while on my run. Now remember, this is my brain taking that quote only in the context it was given. So I might be missing something, but even so things like that get one thinking.
George Bernard Shaw: The secret to success is to offend the greatest number of people.
I really don’t agree with that quote, on a number of levels.
First, success at what? Motherhood? Being a computer programmer? Car mechanic? Psychiatrist? Offending in any of these livelihoods is likely to lose you the job.
So, I suppose we’re talking about the arts. Now there is a sticky mess, and I’m not going to get into just what the arts are here, because that’s a whole other post. But something I do believe is that art should inspire us.
An offensive movie/book/painting rarely, if ever, inspires any good.
Maybe Shaw means that truth offends people. That can be right. But the more difficult art is presenting the truth in such a way that it is digested and integrated into a belief system. A slow process usually, and one where offense is not a good tool.
Does it mean making loads of money by being offensive? A small handful of people do that, but those are more the exception. And using shock or offense is, again, primitive and easy – appealing only to our baser instincts.
Then there is the offense we get if we see others harmed in word or deed. I doubt this is what Shaw meant.
But now, let’s flip it around, to those theoretically being offended and therefore providing success to the offender. In fact, isn’t it one of the ideals that we should be hard to offend? Willing to listen to something, evaluate it critically, willing to find out we are wrong and then move forward? To accept other people’s differences? Willing to forgive the illspoken word?
The quote in that context then also becomes a statement that any successful artist is “holier than thou”, who would be so offended by the truth. That angle makes it a quote not worth quoting.
If it is the truth we’re spreading, then we use reason, love, and patience. Story telling, if rooted in truth, is one of the best mediums for teaching.
And one last thing: there might always be a group offended by some piece of art or some truth. So, we also shouldn’t bend over backwards to create pablum. But we shouldn’t be trying to stick it in their face either.
Of course, it wouldn’t surprise me of Shaw thought I’d over thought something he might have said without thinking. But I enjoyed the journey, and learned a tidbit more about stuff, so that’s okay.