25 April 2011

why we fight?

it's always been my understanding that when you believe in something, in some way, that belief is supposed to make you feel good. maybe it's because you feel the promise of a world where your most dearly held beliefs were put into practice, which would likely be a pretty cool world for you. or maybe, and i suspect this is a large part of it, it's because believing in some ideal, whatever it is, lets you momentarily wallow in the concept that you are a good, noble person with a strong set of beliefs. we all like to think that about ourselves from time to time. however, i will say that there is one of my most deeply held beliefs that, over time, is tending to make me miserable and depressed the more i see it thrust into the public eye.

the h.r. giger painting used in "frankenchrist"
for as long as i can remember, i have always been deeply committed to the idea that people should be allowed to express themselves freely and to be able to communicate their beliefs and ideas, whether those ideas are contentious or offensive to some. a great part of this is because powerful interests have frequently used laws about speech as a cudgel to silence those opposed to their point of view and to maintain the disenfranchisement of certain groups. some of the most celebrated cases have been fought over the boundaries and acceptance of pornography versus art. i was at an impressionable age when jello biafra was arrested over the artwork in the dead kennedys' frankenchrist album and at the same time, i saw members of the reagan-era government [notably senator jesse helms] trying to gut the national endowment for the arts on the basis that they had supported "degenerate art" [i'm reasonably certain that no one used that exact term, but you never know]. as a result, i became passionate about the issue and about breaking down the barriers that prevented people from being able to express themselves.


mapplethorpe
then, in the nineties, things changed and got very confusing. all of a sudden, censorship of language, long the province of the rigid right wing, was suddenly claimed as its own by the liberal left, under the guise of something termed [by its opponents] "political correctness". the main aim of this movement was to use language to "correct" the unconscious habits that denigrated certain cultural groups and by outright suppressing terms or actions that promoted prejudice or hatred towards identifiable groups. the efficacy of this loosely-structured campaign is questionable at best. while there can be no doubt that there has been a certain amount of enforced change and overall softening in formal language [the use of terms like "african-american" or the replacement of traditionally gendered terms like "waiter" and "waitress" with the neutral "server"], "political correctness" was treated more or less as a joke from its inception and incited a ferocious backlash on several different fronts. in terms of using language to eliminate racism, sexism or homophobia, it was an utter failure. by the same token, its reputed evils are almost entirely anecdotal [and yes, i know that your cousin knew a guy in university whose brother was denied a phd over the use of the term "chairman", or something like along those lines]. the one serious analysis of those evils that i've read was in "the culture of fear", which basically indicates that reported incidents of poltically correct repression were largely invented or grossly exaggerated by those who sought to instill fear of the leftist hordes in their constituents. but i digress.

what this meant for me was that i found myself suddenly ejected from the left, called a racist and a bad feminist, because i was still persisting in my old-fashioned defense of everyone to air their point of view. at the time, the new right seemingly came into vogue and my comrades in the fight for free speech were neo-nazis and right-wing militia groups. cue nervous sideways glances and sweaty collar. after all, these weren't the people who spoke for me. i didn't want people to think that i agreed with them, but i did think that they had the same right to speak as everyone else, so i gulped and spent a lot of time repeated voltaire's [or is it?]overused maxim : "i disagree with what you say, but i will defend to the death your right to say it." after all, it was a valid debate and it was evident that this movement had a small but dedicated audience.

standard response to "political correctness"
what was most frustrating for me was that few people seemed to appreciate the difference between defending the right of persons to say something and agreeing with that thing. when i was sticking up for punk bands and artists, of course, there hadn't been that separation, or at least it hadn't been as great. it was something new i had to deal with and its still a time of my life that i reflect on with mixed feelings. i was surrounded by people with very strong political views about a lot of things and i didn't much like or respect any of them.

flash forward twenty years and the playing field is very different. there are comparatively few conflicts over freedom of speech that truly take hold in the public imagination. but they do still occasionally crop up, like the case of guy earle here in canada, who this past week was fined $15,000 for impinging on the human rights of lorna pardy over insults leveled at her and her partner [another word the became popular with "political correctness"] on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation.

to give a brief summation of the case, i'll point readers toward this interview with earle, where he gives his version of events and this blog, which has been following the case closely from an opposing point of view and to the human rights' tribunal's decision against earle.

now, i will caution that virtually all of the facts in the case are in dispute- who started it, what the cause was, what happened off-stage after the initial verbal exchange, etc., so i'm going to limit myself to discussing only the parts on which everyone seems to agree: that earle insulted pardy from the stage and that those insults were mostly driven by her gender and sexual orientation. earle has claimed that what he said should be protected as free speech, whereas pardy filed a claim against him on the basis that he had assaulted her human rights with what he said.

the new face of the oppressed?
earle has referred to comedians as the "canaries in a coal mine" of free speech, on the vanguard and constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptable speech. certainly, there is evidence to back that assertion up. comedy has frequently been a vehicle for social change by pointing out the ridiculousness of existing situations. it's an important avenue to keep open.

so being a proponent of free speech and seeing the general value of comedy as a specific form of language, i'm inclined to agree with earle on principle. except for one thing. what he said is in absolutely no way pushing the boundaries of speech. far from forging new ground, he used the opportunity to repeat the sort of insults that have been leveled at women and homosexuals since people have been aware of their existence. you're only lesbians because no man would fuck you? wow, never heard that one before. shut this woman up and stuff a cock in her mouth? the originality just doesn't stop. now, free speech has become about the rights of the traditionally dominant cultural group to advocate the oppression of the traditionally oppressed.

returning for a moment to the case of the militias and neo-nazis, or, to use a more timely example, the reprehensible actions of the westboro baptist church, the one redeeming thing about them is that they at least believe in what they're saying. you might hate it, but it's genuine. earle isn't even that. he's said since the incident in 2007 that he isn't sexist or homophobic. so, if we take him at his word, what he said doesn't even have any deeper meaning for him. all of a sudden, free speech is about the right of someone to shoot their mouth off and to make disenfranchised groups a target of ridicule and hatred just for the hell of it. and what kills me is that i agree that such instances to constitute free speech.

i chose this case to illustrate my point because i think it's increasingly characteristic of where battles over free speech are going. far from pushing the envelope or expanding horizons, freedom of speech now denotes our collective ability to fill the air with verbal pollution- insults, taunts, ignorance, xenophobia- until the pollutants effectively drown out anything meaningful that's being said.

i am still unwavering in my support for free speech. even though it's been a long time since that belief has made me feel that glow of pride at being a strong, principled person, it's close to my heart and, in defiance of logic, it's become even more entrenched with time. but at the same time, i think i'd like to start a movement defending the right of people to just shut the fuck up.

1 comment:

Martin Rouge said...

I agree that people have the right to say whatever they want, but I'll defend my position that people should take a moment to think before they open their word hole, if only so that they use proper grammar and syntax.

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