March 20, 2016

A New Bus Ride

A doll with measles?  Or a colostomy bag? I’m talking here about a whole a new bus ride.

Aficionados of “critical offense studies” (henceforth, COS) will know the reference. In one of the very few books to analyze the concept of offense (and its cognate “offensiveness”), the late Joel Feinberg in Offense to Others (see Bibliography tab) asked his readers to imagine taking a series of bus rides, outlined in a hierarchy of offensive sights or actions. He offered 31 variations in six clusters: (1) affronts to the senses; (2) disgust and revulsion; (3) shock to moral, religious, or patriotic sensibilities; (4) shame, embarrassment, and anxiety; (5) annoyance, boredom, frustration; and (6) fear, resentment, humiliation, and anger. He described each of his trips in a sentence or two, imagining in the first ride of Cluster 1 sitting next to an unwashed man reeking of body odor. The succeeding variations are more and more lurid, involving scenarios of unlikely sexploits (beginning with the merely naked person in the next seat), unappetizing eating displays (such as vomit imbibing), and demeaning sloganeering (picture gaudy t-shirts with scurrilous slurs). Feinberg wanted to know how we’d react and why and what, if anything, we ought to do about these boorish, malodorous, and malevolent passengers.

The Feinberg rides are celebrated in the philosophical literature for their, well, joyously excessive (one wants to say “offensive”) character — one book reviewer called it a “bus ride that would make Monty Python blanch.” The problem is, no longer, or at least not entirely. Feinberg was born in 1926 and was thinking about these problems in the 1970s and early 1980s (the book was published in 1985). But today in a less reticent age, an age of limitless porn, Donald Trump, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Gilbert Gottfried, and, well, you can probably name far more of the personalities who make a living being offensive than I can, many of Feinberg’s imagined scenes have grown stale, or so I surmise lots of readers would say. It’s time, therefore, to re-imagine the varieties of offensive sights and sounds to whet the philosopher’s appetite for lusty disputation.

So as a first attempt I propose marketing a new line of children’s dolls to be branded, let’s say, Diseased Doll, and made by a new toy company, Get Used to It. Each Diseased Doll (trademarked, of course: what could be offensive about those words?) carries the indelible signs of a particular symptom or bodily condition. As I noted up top, one doll might be spotted with measles. Another would have a plug-in colostomy bag. A Barbie-like frame could be bent over with kyphosis. Just to stretch the point, the company could offer a cuddly giraffe with a voice prosthesis. For the somewhat wealthier parent who can afford the electronics, there’s a nifty number that exhibits Parkinson-like tremors, another with Tourette’s tics, and an even more expensive mannikin that writhes in a grand mal seizure at the push of a little button behind its head. And for the truly daring, a talking doll with coprolalia. I could go on and on, but you get it.

If you are no longer a 14-year-old whose fondest ambition is to embarrass your parents and teachers, this new doll line will warrant obloquy aplenty. Just like the doctor (Feinberg) ordered.

The Get Used to It marketing manager, though, will have a wonderful website and glossy mailers that explain the real point: to teach vulnerable children about the ailments suffered by those with whom they live and by close acquaintances, allaying children’s fears and serving as an ice-breaker to explain the miseries with which God has afflicted us (oops, different crowd).

Would these sincere explanations suffice to keep our new lovables in the stores, ready for sale to intended buyers, not just the wickedly sophomoric who would bring them along to toga parties (probably too dated; make that “gangster” parties)? Would the obviously noble corporate purpose overcome your squeamishness when a proud owner of a Diseased Doll is sitting next to you on the bus?

As they like to say in the company show room and at toy stores around the country: Get used to it. I’m hoping to announce more new traveling companions for your bus rides in the months ahead.

Of course, as I write all this I realize that the real reason Feinberg’s fancy may be taken as passé is that these days (and how could Feinberg have anticipated it?) no one looks at anything on a bus (other than their you know what).