This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Does a society have the right to protect itself from being offended?
The other day, we were watching “Dirty Pictures,” a made- for- TV movie made in 2000 about the Robert Mapplethorpe censorship case in Cincinnati. For those who might be too young to remember: Robert Mapplethorpe was a gay photographer whose work included a certain amount of sexually explicit imagery, including some depictions of fairly extreme sexual practices. In 1990 there was a big kerfuffle when the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, Dennis Barrie (played in the movie by James Woods), was tried on obscenity charges for displaying the Mapplethorpe photos in his museum.
The movie is good — overwrought in places, but overall thoughtful and interesting, and good at giving the events a human face. And the format is unusual: the basic form is a docu-drama, but it’s interspersed with commentary from real people, from Salman Rushdie to William F. Buckley, talking about the controversy and the issues it raised.
It’s William F. Buckley I want to talk about today.
Buckley was speaking in defense of the prosecutors of the case. He said that a society has the right to decide what it’s offended by… and to protect itself from that which offends it. And at one point he said — I’m going to have to paraphrase here, since I erased the Tivo before I realized I wanted to write about it — that a society can look at sadomasochistic imagery, and at the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and say, “We don’t want this.”
And I was so offended by this statement, it took my breath away.
I don’t mean mock offended. I don’t mean “offended as a useful rhetorical device” offended. I was genuinely, seriously, viscerally offended. I wanted to reach into the television and smack him across his smug little rat face. I sat there, shocked, thinking, “Did he just go on national television and equate consensual sadomasochism with Nazi Germany?”
How dare he.
How fucking dare he.
It is, in my opinion, grossly outrageous to equate a sex act between consenting adults that gives them both pleasure with the deliberate genocide of millions. It’s not just offensive to sadomasochists. It’s offensive to people who went through the Holocaust. It dehumanizes the one, and trivializes the other. It was one of the most offensive things I’d heard all month.
And yet at no point in my outrage did I think, “There oughta be a law. He shouldn’t be allowed to do that. There oughta be a law against equating sadomasochism and the Holocaust.”
I’m trying to think of a nice way to say, “Because I’m better than him.” I’m failing. Because I’m better than him.
What Buckley failed to realize is that the First Amendment that protects our right to offend one another works for everybody. Him, me, everybody. What he failed to realize is that, if Cincinnati can pass a law saying that an image of a man peeing in another man’s mouth is offensive and can therefore be banned, then San Francisco can pass a law saying that equating sadomasochism with the Holocaust is offensive and can therefore be banned.
I would never try to do that. I refer you once again to the “I’m better than him” principle. But there are some folks on the left who don’t quite grasp the “We can’t ban speech just because we don’t like it” concept. (As I learned when I defended Fred Phelps’ First Amendment right to express his evil, hateful, repulsive opinions… and ran into a bunch of progressives who were all too eager to find loopholes in the First Amendment just so we could nail the bastard.) If we don’t protect speech that offends in Cincinnati, we can’t protect speech that offends in San Francisco.
What Buckley failed to realize is something blindingly obvious, something many, many people have said before me: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect the radical assertion that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect Nazis marching in Skokie, and war protesters wearing black armbands to school in Des Moines; to protect Fred Phelps when he pickets funerals, and lefty radicals when they burn the American flag. We need the First Amendment to protect Robert Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati… and we need it to protect William F. Buckley in San Francisco.
In other words: We need the First Amendment to protect speech that offends people.
That’s the whole freakin’ point.
Now, many people at this point are going to argue — Buckley himself would probably argue if he were still alive — “Yes… but sex is different. When it comes to sexual expression, we have community standards for what’s acceptable. That’s what was at stake here — a community’s right to define what obscenity is for themselves. Not about politics or religion or art. Just about sex. Because sex is different.”
But I have yet to see any good argument for why sex should be different.
Sex is often seen as different. Sex is often the great exception: to free speech laws, to free enterprise laws, to notions about good manners, to notions of ethics and morality.
But I have yet to see a truly compelling argument for why that should be.
And that’s tomorrow’s piece.