Certainly the civilized world has a considerable history of making fun of well-known figures, be they prominent socially, politically, governmentally, economically, or through some other means. The rise of “talk” radio and television seems largely based on the idea that being outrageous by attacking, defending, misquoting, misconstruing, making fun of or treating any sort of “public” figure as if they spoke with divine authority attracts an audience and sells advertising (which is, of course, what broadcasting is truly all about).
And no one really expects the person doing the discussing, OR the person under discussion, necessarily to have much real knowledge of the topic at hand. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have some knowledge, at least on occasion, but that it doesn’t seem to be required.
Yes, I’ll confess that a lot of this annoys me considerably, especially (of course) when I disagree with what is being said. But I was taught, as have we all, that there are some ideas (most specifically some words), which are not “correct” to use in public. We can’t talk about “American Indians,” we have to call those people “Native Americans” (in spite of the fact that one can make a case that they are no more truly “native” to America than any other persons born here [which IS the most common definition]), we can’t use the “N” word because it’s offensive to African Americans (although THEY can [and some do] use it about themselves). That particular word has been pushed so far beyond the pale that we have real problems even allowing a major literary classic like Huckleberry Finn to be available in a public library, let alone studied in a class, because “that” word is used so much in it.
I’ve noticed that Jewish people often tell the most outrageously stereotypical “Jewish” jokes and the same seems true of Irish, Polish, Italian, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and many other ethnic/religious/social groups. Of course, “outsiders” are offensive when they repeat such jokes, just as men are offensive when they tell jokes at the expense of women, although women seem to be allowed to tell jokes about their husbands/boyfriends, even in TV commercials.
Perhaps it’s time that we all just took a “chill pill” about this. No, I’m not saying that we should all go out of our way to be offensive to as many people/groups as possible. In fact, I think that at least trying to be a bit kinder to others wouldn’t be a bad idea for any of us. A certain amount of “live and let live” would probably make this a better place for all of us. If that means giving the other person the benefit of the doubt for something they say, maybe it’s worth considering the context and what was the intent.
You see; I believe that there is a difference between “free speech” and unrestrained action. The misunderstanding can come when these two concepts intersect. The classic example of a legitimate restriction on freedom of speech is that “You can’t yell ‘FIRE’ in a crowded theatre.” The unstated assumption, of course, is that there really isn’t a fire; so yelling that is likely (and seems intended) to produce a panic situation and endanger others. (As a theatre historian I’ve read about all too many fires in crowded theatres, so I’m well aware of how dangerous that sort of thing can be.) Still, if there really WAS a fire, I’m not sure that I would be too upset about someone spreading that news, even if yelling might not be the best way of dealing with it.
Questions regarding abortion and the right to choose have been around for quite a while and are still a topic for sermons, debates, pickets, protests, etc. Personally, I tend to favor the idea that you should be free to believe (and advocate) whichever side of this issue you believe in. What you do NOT have, however, is the right not to grant those on the other side their ability to make up their own mind and to express THEIR opinions. Even more importantly, you don’t have the right to engage in acts of violence to prevent people you may disagree with from acting on their own beliefs in their own lives. In other words, acting to have abortion heavily restricted by unreasonable laws in your community is one thing, no matter how wrong headed I may believe that position is. Fire bombing a clinic where abortions are performed, or shooting those who engage in this medical procedure is not free speech, it’s terrorism.
I saw on the news earlier today that a preacher in a Lakewood church in Colorado refused to allow a funeral from his church because the deceased was gay. I won’t quibble with the idea that this preacher has the right to believe that homosexuality is a sin, but to stop a funeral with the open casket already in the chapel, the mourners in place, etc., doesn’t seem to represent this preacher’s religion very well. He seems to be saying that because he disapproves of this individual’s “lifestyle,” she does not deserve to be tolerated within the religious community. Now, to have refused to schedule the funeral before the fact, I don’t see as a major problem, although I don’t think it’s in good taste. However, what was done seems hard to accept as the sort of action which the Jesus I have read about would suggest is appropriate behavior to be taken in his name. After all, he is reputed to have hung around with tax collectors, prostitutes and other “undesirables,” but I won’t get into that. Still, I look at this sort of thing as a form of terrorism, as is abortion clinic bombing. It isn’t commonly referred to as that in the press, because it’s not “Islamic,” (which seems to be the “flavor of the moment” for defining terrorism) but the fact is that terrorism is terrorism, just as religious fundamentalist intolerance is religious fundamentalist intolerance, no matter what the “flavor.”
The point here is that it’s one thing to engage in intellectual discussion on questions of religious, social or political differences. It’s another thing entirely to ACT on those differences, especially with violence. I see that Western Carolina University, where I taught in the theatre program for many years, is doing The Rocky Horror Show again this spring. I say again, because in 2001 I directed and designed the set for WCU’s first production of that script, which most people only know from its film version The Rocky Horror Picture Show. At that time, I was also serving (at the request of the Dean and the Department Head) as “Acting Director of Theatre” (an impressive title which mostly meant I also did a lot of work on Box Office, programs, publicity, season ticket sales, etc., with little real authority to do anything much).
In that capacity, I was requested to meet with the Dean one day during the summer of 2000 and he indicated that someone in the university administration (I’ve always believed that I knew who, but I don’t KNOW.) thought this was a very unwise choice because the script is “touchy” (Okay, it’s raunchy and outrageous.) and, since the UNC System was in the process of seeking a bond referendum that fall, we shouldn’t do anything “controversial.”
I allowed as how I was talking to my Dean and I worked for him, so I would withdraw the play from the season if he ordered me to do so. However, he should understand that I would not hesitate to explain that the script was withdrawn for political reasons if I was questioned about it (which seemed likely as the season had already been announced) and that he (and the rest of the Administration) should be aware that the same script was being produced that fall by one of our sister institutions in a much more heavily populated and much more urban part of the state about two weeks before the date of the referendum voting, whereas the WCU production was scheduled for February after a November vote.
I suggested that I felt that the University having to face the possibility of charges of political censorship was potentially worse publicity than just ignoring the production choice. I think I was right, the bond referendum passed, and the production was fairly non-controversial. Did some folks stay away? Almost certainly! Did we sell a lot of tickets and have a fair amount of fun with this raunchy satire of 50’s & 60’s Sci-Fi? Yes to that, too. And, I think that’s how it should be. We made no effort to make a “statement” with the production. We just thought it was fun and that our audience would, for the most part, enjoy it. Did we offend some people with the choice of this material? Probably. Although, I refuse to accept that the possibility of offending some should be an important consideration. That gets us back to “political correctness.”
I think that “political correctness” is a dangerous notion because it encourages us to place some kinds of ideas, questions, etc., outside of the realm of consideration. We are saying to ourselves, “Don’t go there, that might be offensive to some.” On the other hand, if we DON’T go there: One; how do we truly KNOW that it’s offensive, and, Two; aren’t we just accepting the idea that we shouldn’t think?
One of my favorite quotes in the whole world is in the lines of the character Stephen Hopkins in Peter Stone’s 1776 “ . . . in all my years I never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” Talking, discussing, debating, arguing about issues is what freedom of speech is all about. THAT isn’t dangerous! What’s dangerous is not allowing people to DISCUSS ideas and making them feel forced to take direct action because they don’t feel their opinions are being given a place at the table.
Personally, I think that’s part of what the arts, especially theatre are all about. I think it’s the job of theatres, especially on college campuses, at least occasionally, to do something “touchy,” to get people talking (and thinking) about something. Isn’t that what education is all about? If you can’t talk about ideas on a university campus, it’s not doing its job. No, I never set out to consciously offend people, but I never felt that a good play shouldn’t be done because somebody might object to something in it.
That’s my main reason for supporting Charlie Hebdo. It’s not because I agree with whatever positions it has advocated. I’ll be honest: I know nothing about this publication’s positions. That’s not the point! The point is, I agree with a quote often attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I think that’s a good idea and projects an attitude I wish there was more of in the world: we don’t have to agree with something to allow it to be expressed peacefully. When we cross the line into direct, physical action to try to suppress differing ideas is when we get into real difficulties.