Monday, June 14, 2010

Censorship II

Before I broke to blog about a Liberal-NDP merger, I was writing on censorship. Let me return to this subject. Two blogs ago, I argued that irredeemable speech can gain an economic rationale on an individual level: the speaker (or, author) gets something (say, publicity) and others have to pay the price. On the surface this seems like a good argument against politically-useless and offensive expression. Surely, individuals should have to pay the cost of their actions or at least take responsibility for them?

The counter argument is this: surely we should be concerned about the individual because our society is based on individualism. Moreover, someone holding a different view then me might go further and say "Surely, Andrew, you defend individual rights -- say, equality rights with it comes to the GLBT community -- what happened? Is this not a contradiction: you defend people on the left of the political spectrum but not on the right?!

Initially, when I planned this blog, I thought this was a pretty easy argument to address. I'll confess that it might have some merits and that I likely need to put more consideration into this issue.

This said, the question, it seems to me, is this: is there a merit to social cohesion and politeness? Let's start with politeness first. OK, I'm out of vogue. Dignity, concern for others, and moderation appeal to me. Everyone swears ... do we need to swear all the time? Is free speech harmed by politeness? It might be. In literary or artistic work form is often as important as content. One could express one's thoughts in prose but that is no reason to disallow poetry. If form were unimportant, we'd have no troubles disallowing poetry or music or TV, as long as we had print-text prose, we'd be fine. We don't disallow other media, of course, because form is important. Avatar may have been a great script. I'm glad I saw it in the theatre.

This, it seems to me, is the rationale behind protecting artistic expression from unwarranted intrusions by the state or the public. To force a change in form damages expression in a way that calls the integrity of that expression (or, even its content) into question. Here, then, I think one needs to argue on the side of caution and for as little state intrusion as possible, even if the form and content are offensive to some.

This can apply to impolite expression. One might find parts of Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal offensive or another film (say, Decline of the American Empire) impolite. Yet, that impoliteness, say, is with purpose. It is needed to make the point Arcand wants to make (that the Church has abandoned Jesus racialism for more comfortable social service that is, sometimes, self-interested). In Decline of the American Empire, the character Remi is a truly despicable human being. To understand the depth of his hedonism, we actually need his discourse; we need that effect, however impolite it might be.

This also strikes me as something different then offending for the sake of offending or hypocrisy. Let's look at hypocrisy first. It is one thing to argue against, say, pornography. We can have reasoned debate on this. It is another thing to argue that gay expression is, by definition pornographic simply because it is gay expression. Or, to argue that gay expression is pornographic and ignore the host of "girlie" magazines in the corner store. Such a contradiction -- condemning gay expression while ignoring girlie magazines -- raises questions about the intent of someone demanding censorship: are they really against pornography (a potentially legitimate position) or simply against gay expression (whether pornographic or not)? In this case, the contradiction seems to me to be something other than a logical argument. It is a way of naming something (gay expression) in order to censor it for reasons other than one's true concern.

Offensiveness: if we accept the right to offend as a legitimate, what happens when we take to its logical extreme? To argue that there is some merit in ... say, portraying Mohammed is a way that some Muslims find offensive means does not mean, I think, that we must accept the proposition that offensiveness is good without any qualifications. If this were so, what is to stop someone from standing outside my local grocery store and saying I beat my children as I stroll in to pick up some milk. It is not true -- indeed libel -- but should not the same principle (offensiveness has merits) hold true? What is to stop someone from taking my picture and photoshopping it onto a capture that reads "terrorist"?

Surely, no one would argue that this is legitimate. Indeed, that is why we have libel laws. And, surely, no one would argue that it is wrong to insult a single individual for the sake offensiveness but OK to insult a group. If we did, then the line "Israelis should go back to Poland" would be legitimate.

None of this actually answers my original questions but I hope it provides people with something to think about. Let's recap. I've argued:

-form is as important as content sometimes and so we need to be careful to protect form from censorship
-we need to be wary of hypocrisy and find out if those arguing for censorship and making a reasoned case or simply advancing their moral and political agenda
-the principle that offensiveness for its own sake is good is open to question when looked at logically
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