Why are we obsessed with taking offence?

he useful ambiguity of the French language has rarely been better demonstrated than by an incident this weekend involving France’s best-known newly-wed, M. Nicolas Sarkozy. During a visit to an agricultural fair, a member of the public rather rudely declined to shake the President’s hand on the grounds that that contact would make him dirty. In response and captured on camera, Sarkozy casually returned the insult. “Casse-toi alors, pauvr’con,” he said.

Reports in the English media have tried, and failed, to pitch the precise offensiveness of this remark. “Then get out of here, you total jerk” was one of the feebler versions. Other journalists went for “Go away, you bloody idiot” or, more daringly, “Get lost, you stupid bastard.”

“Con”, of course, is the Gallic first cousin of the Anglo-Saxon expletive it most resembles but, for reasons perhaps only a psychologist can explain, the reference to female genitalia is less fraught with menace and fear for the French than for the English and the Americans. One of the most popular songs by the great Georges Brassens was called “Le Roi des Cons” and can be played on-air without a problem; when last week Jane Fonda uttered its equivalent while discussing The Vagina Monologues, there was a hurricane of public outrage.

But then, in both Britain and America, taking offence has become part of the culture. If a group or individual has deemed a remark, joke, article, point of view, play, film or book to be insensitive, it is no longer a matter of private indignation but of public complaint.

The easy, lazy explanation of this new mood of sensitivity on the one hand, and caution on the other, is that political correctness has led to a permanent state of cultural cringe, but could it be that something more interesting is going on – a shift of power? Last week I was on the receiving end of some choice Sarkozian insults myself, having dared to make light of a row over an ill-written travel blog, commissioned by the Guardian newspaper, and some angry bloggers.

The level of abuse for what was a short, light-hearted piece seemed slightly disproportionate to the subject, but one particular reader’s comment struck me as intriguing. “If newspapers continue to alienate their readers,” my correspondent wrote, “they’ll ultimately go out of business.”

If true, it is a worrying development. It means that merely writing something with which someone else disagrees is more than a difference of views. It is potentially offensive, the cause of alienation. Rather than subjecting himself to it, the argument goes, readers or viewers will go elsewhere.

Even in this great age of inter-activity, the argument that unless the consumer agrees with the general tenor of an article (or, presumably, play or film), then he should feel alienated takes the news sensitivity to a new level. The idea that to be deservedly successful, communication should be an exercise in exchanging views with which no one can take exception has a faintly sinister ring.

Taken to its logical extreme, it will lead to a comforting form of discourse in which every area of serious disagreement is avoided, and will not so much reflect reality as the comforting structure of reality-show values. Just as in cookery programmes every dish turns out to be delicious, every house built or bought is a sound investment and every garden flowers, so a friendly, non-alienating expression of opinion will make the world a quieter, less querulous, more soothing place. That, of course, would be truly offensive.

Connie can learn from Fenella

Connie Fisher, the singer who landed the starring role in The Sound of Music after winning a competition on television, is moving on.

The experience has been so stressful, she says, that when she first appeared on the BBC show she was size 12. On her opening night, she was size 10. Now she is size eight. She has decided to leave the musical, presumably before she disappears altogether. Perhaps she should talk to the great Fenella Fielding, profiled last weekend in the Independent on Sunday. After 50 years in the business, Fenella Fielding has remained something of a mystery. Early in her life, she invented a showy public persona behind which her real self had been very successfully hidden.

* In a weird echo of the ways things were done in a primmer, more decorous age, the private detective has once again become a central part of divorce proceedings. A survey by Grant Thornton has revealed that extramarital affairs are still the main cause of divorce, although rates of adultery dipped slightly last year after an all-time high in 2006.

More startlingly, more than two-thirds of all solicitors specialising in matrimonial cases reported that they had acted during the year for a client who had used a detective to spy on his or her – usually her – spouse.

What would these soft-footed sleuths and professional sheet-sniffers do without human desire? Fifty years ago, they were bursting in on adulterous couples in Brighton hotels. Now they are hacking into emails. It may not be dignified, but it must one of the easiest ways of earning a living. As anyone who has seen the TV show Cheaters will know, there are few more incompetent sinners than the eager adulterer.