This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Does a society have the right to protect itself from being offended?

Dirty pictures
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.

Consensual sadomasochism
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.”

Why not?

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.


11 thoughts on “Offended

  1. 1

    “Did he just go on national television and equate consensual sadomasochism with Nazi Germany?”
    Actually, no, he didn’t do that. But he did do something just about as offensive: he said, in effect, that “we,” as a society, have a right to shield ourselves, our children, and everyone else within our reach, from ANYTHING “we” find offensive or troubling, including the explicit depiction of true events like the Holocaust.
    Which should remind us all where any policy of censorship will inevitably lead us: from keeping out disturbing BS, to keeping out disturbing truth.
    Thanks for reminding us, yet again, what an overdressed, overrated sack of manure Buckley always was. All he ever did was give a pseudo-intellectual sheen to the same old right-wing anti-intellectual BS. (Ever notice how his most adoring fans NEVER provide anny actual examples of his alleged genius?)

  2. 2

    Sorry, Raging Bee, but Greta is right. I saw the clip too, and Buckley DID say that a society has a right to put a stop to “obscenity” just like Germany had a right to put a stop to the Holocaust.
    NOT images of the Holocaust. The Holocaust itself. That’s really what he said. The man was insane.

  3. 3

    Sorry to have to dip into the lexicon of religion to adequately express my reaction, but: Amen, amen, amen!
    That the First Amendment exists to protect unpopular speech cannot be repeated enough, and you have (as usual) found a particularly eloquent and well-illustrated way to make the point. Thank you.

  4. 4

    Thanks for reposting this – I loved it first time, love it even more now. And it’s timely for me: I’ve been thinking a lot about acceptable and unacceptable forms of speech and publishing, and I’ll definitely need to work this post into my ideas.

  5. 5

    I imagine this is why the ACLU has such a bad rap in certain circles: because they stand up for people’s right to free speech. But no one gets sued for saying that apple pie is delicious, and even if they did, they wouldn’t need the ACLU’s help. So of course they’re always seen defending Nazis and pornographers.

  6. 7

    I love the word “kerfuffle”.
    I agree wholeheartedly that the right to freedom of speech should be protected, not just when we agree with what is being said but when we disagree. Especially when we disagree. There should be few, if any, special cases beyond public safety (yelling Fire! in a theatre), defamation (slander) or incitement to commit a crime. I’m not even sure that these should be entirely exempt.

  7. 8

    I heard a TED talk recently (not a recent talk, though) by Eve Ensler who talked about a high school student in Minnesota who was threatened with expulsion for wearing an “I <3 My Vagina" button to school. Now I'm fairly certain I know how you feel about the sexual/feminist expression aspect of this (and I agree). Furthermore, I agree with your statement as far as adults are concerned; I feel that adults do not have the right to keep themselves from being offended. But what about children?
    To what extent do you believe that parents have the right to protect their children from the free expression of others? And I'm not talking about easy situations like porn on television late at night, I mean a situation in which the only way a parent can protect the kid is by preventing the public performance.
    I realize the odious uses to which "Think of the Children" has been put, but I'm interested in where you feel that line should be drawn.

  8. 9

    To what extent do you believe that parents have the right to protect their children from the free expression of others? And I’m not talking about easy situations like porn on television late at night, I mean a situation in which the only way a parent can protect the kid is by preventing the public performance.
    Personally, I can’t imagine any such situation. If a public performance contains obscene material, then do it in a venue where access can be controlled and kids can be kept out of it.
    PS: I guess I interpreted GC’s paraphrasing of Buckley’s blithering wrongly. My bad. Not that that makes what he actually said any more defensible…

  9. rie

    what we so often forget in this country of “majority rules” is that important necessary condition that goes with it: “protection of the minority voices.” this country is all about checks and balances — not simple “majority rules.” majority rules without any checks is mob rule. with checks, it is a balanced way to allow the many to speak, while protecting those who disagree.
    one ban will lead to others — and it will quickly come to pass that it is not just the phelpses of the world who are getting banned.

  10. 11

    I’m black and it offends the crap out of me when black men say that the word nigger should be censored. I say what about other words like cunt. Then they come up with some excuse that essentially makes racism seem worse than sexism. A professor once said that the discrepancy is justified because slavery was institutionalized. Huh?

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