Expression and the right to offend

I was wrapping-up the audio version of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking (an excellent read) and reached the portion about the Boston Marathon bombings and her “a poem for dzhokar” (and the blowback she received) the morning after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Palmer describes what her thought process was when she fiddled with the poem, describes the reaction from her community after she posted it, and then the reaction of people who came across the poem as a news story. [1. “a poem for dzhokar” is not a particularly good work, and Palmer’s not going to be awarded anything for it. But it’s a thought, and it’s art, and it’s designed to provoke and make the reader think. As not just a parent but someone who worked at a university for 15 years, I look at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s pictures from the time of the arrest and I see a dumb 19 year-old kid. I see a kid who is unsure of his place in the universe, life as a whole, and who might have had a bit of hero worship for his brother (who was seven years older). I see a fool who just threw away his life and the lives of many other innocents for nothing.]

The attacks on her were brutal.

Was the poem it in good taste? Perhaps, perhaps not. Was it offensive? Most likely.

She posted the poem a week after the bombing. A lot of people’s emotions were still very raw… it was going to be taken the wrong way by a certain segment, no doubt. I suspect there are plenty of individuals who lashed out in the comments and on Twitter who were emotional wrecks and might have taken it differently two or three months later. They weren’t ready to express any thoughts towards Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or his family — and Palmer’s poem was making them think outside of the pattern they were comfortable with at that point.

I know artists and cartoonists, writers and poets, singers and songwriters. All of them, at some point, have had someone, somewhere, claim their work is offensive. Indeed, if someone is so fundamentally tied to a belief, the work may even be seen as blasphemous.

The more I thought about this, the more I recalled a bit by George Carlin. I think this is a good piece to add to this discussion — it hits on all the topics in the exact ways you’d expect Carlin to. (Let me warn you: This can be a pretty offensive piece. Carlin talks about joking about rape, feminists trying to control language, and the general stupidity of the American male. If you are easily offended, ignore the video and move on.)

Regardless of what you think about what Carlin says in that bit, he has the right to say it. And you have the right to be offended. You have the right to express your disapproval. You do not have an argument simply for the sake of an argument, you have to question who you are as a human being if you threatened him or is his family in response… and you certainly don’t have the right to tell him to shut up.

Simply put, he’s exercising his rights as a human being and an artist. You do not have to like what he’s saying or how he’s saying it, but if you consider yourself an adult and a human being, you need to allow for him to say it. Regardless of how repugnant you may see it, he has the right to say it.

Art, at some point, will (and should) make people uncomfortable. That’s not to say all art that makes people uncomfortable is in bad taste. For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey can make people uncomfortable (though I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who feels it’s offensive), whereas Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat can make many people uncomfortable and also make them feel it’s in bad taste.

We see it in other art forms across other media — James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the videos for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” the songs “War” by Edwin Starr and “Cop Killer” by Body Count. Each of those make certain people uncomfortable for certain reasons, and more than a few find some of those to be in bad taste as well.

To bring in something more recent: Joss Whedon (the director of The Avengers: Age of Ultron) deactivated his Twitter account recently. He later said it wasn’t because of this, but it coincided with a mass of violent tweets aimed at him for supposedly (in Age of Ultron): equating Black Widow’s forced sterilization to being a “monster” and treating her as a damsel in distress [2. I don’t see anything anti-feminist in the characterization, but rather a reinforcement of many feminist critiques of society as a whole. She makes an excellent point about what choices were made for her, when she had no control over her own existence. As for being a damsel in distress — she was doing her job and was simply captured on the field. And she’s the one who leads the team to the base. Stark or Barton would have had to deal in the same way.]; and joking about rape by having Stark (if he is able to wield Thor’s hammer) say he’s going to reestablish prima nota. [3. He’s saying that once he lifts the hammer, and comes to rule Asgard, he’ll establish the rule that a ruler may sleep with any bride on her wedding night. I’m not crazy about the line, but I see where it was headed. Regardless of the things he’s done over all these movies, he may be a good guy, but he’s not a nice guy — and it feeds into the drastic differences mounting between his character and that of Captain America. Again, I think a different line could have been chosen, but I see why it was put in Stark’s mouth to say.]

Whedon offended some people with his choices. He has the right to. And they have the right to voice disapproval. When we all have a discussion, these sorts of things tend to work themselves out.

But then he was attacked. The vitriol was horrible. When you look at the attacks on Whedon, though, are they any different than the attacks on other individuals (regardless of what you think about her, does Anita Sarkeesian really deserve death threats? Or should you debate the topic better?)? Whatever merit a counterargument may have is completely undercut by calls for someone’s death. Simply disagreeing with someone else should not mean that other person needs to die — it means you need to do a better job at either defending your side (or ignoring that other person).

It all comes down to the right to offend when expressing oneself. And, for many, that’s an issue. This banner and tweet from Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan sum it up:

Such an attitude pervades the Internet — it is not just the stance of an Islamist party in Pakistan. As soon as some segment feels as though it’s being wronged, it starts prepping for battle. There is almost no corner where some variation of that statement above has not been bellowed-out with great fervor, sending the minions forth to attack and tear down and threaten those who have “blasphemed.”

How are the attacks against Whedon different than the ones against Sarkeesian? How are they different than the fatwā issued against Salman Rushdie when The Satanic Verses was published? How are they different from the lead-up to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices? Or the lead-up to the French Christian fundamentalists who attacked the Saint Michel theater in Paris in 1988 when it was showing the The Last Temptation of Christ?

An entrenched, fundamentalist attitude pervades a community in cases like these — and that community refuses to be criticized or have its notions challenged. Thus, they become violent (through words and, sometimes, actions). It seems it doesn’t matter what topic you’re speaking about, the fundamentalists will see blasphemy, and carried to its logical end, the price for blasphemy is the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

Expression is part of who we are. We have to have the freedom to voice ourselves. We have to have the freedom to offend and voice dissent to the offending thing. But violence is never called for.

For everything we love and admire, there is something we will find disgusting. For every Sistine Chapel, there will be a Piss Christ. For every Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” there will be a Bieber’s “Baby.” For every Citizen Kane, there will be The Room.

We have differing opinions. We will disagree on that which is offensive and that which is not. It is the mark of an adult to be able to determine why they are offended and voice why that is without resorting to violence (either emotional, verbal, written, or physical). And, sometimes, the mistake may be so small, so inconsequential, that we need to know when to walk away from it.

In my view, the recent controversy over the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” of Game of Thrones is an example of how to handle disagreement. There have been a few people who have taken the low road and been relatively vitriolic in their reactions, but most have taken a higher road and made their views clear (they won’t continue to watch the show or are canceling HBO, for example). The is constructive and useful, in my opinion. The discussion of why a rape is (usually) a relatively poor literary device for a writer to employ, the discussion of a rape culture and the surrounding media, and the overall back and forth on the topic has been healthy and fruitful (in my opinion). A discussion such as this helps us all.

We have to accept there will be things and people and opinions and stuff we don’t like. We have to accept we will be offended. We will be made angry. And we have to accept those things aren’t going away. There are ways to express discontent and make yourself heard — but you cannot expect to never be offended and you cannot expect anyone and everyone to agree with you.

Freedom of expression is a human right. That expression may be a painting, or a movie, or a book, or a crucifix in urine, or a blog post, or a simple tweet. If what I or others express is seen as offensive or blasphemous, that’s on you to deal with and find a constructive way in which to respond — do not attempt to make someone shut up or threaten violence against them. Do you want to treat each other like adults and discuss the difference, or act like children on a playground? My suggestion is to voice disagreement and debate (civilly) the topic. Perhaps, if you discuss it in a civil manner, you may find yourself at a point where the other person(s) agree with you. If you can’t discuss it in a civil manner, then just pull an Elsa and…