Sunday, June 23, 2013

Defensively Offended: The Free Speech Conundrum

   
Warning: If you are easily offended, please keep reading :-D


Spartacus's pre-solicitation breakfast
Last night, while we were waiting in MoJo's for our pizza to arrive, Spartacus casually mentioned that he'd been solicited by a prostitute less than an hour before. 

"Really?!" I responded, impressed by his revelation. The visuals of their imagined interaction were strangely delightful, irresistible even, and I made no attempt whatsoever at concealing my curiosity. 

First of all, who knew there were ladies of the night working the mid-afternoon shift in downtown Decatur, known locally as "Dick-Hater" because of its lesbian demography? Secondly, I find him über-desirable, so why wouldn't another woman? I have no shame in admitting that I'd spent all morning lusting after my own husband, purposely trailing behind him as we crossed the street into the breakfast cafe, just so I could admire his butt and legs in those cargo pants he wears so well. 

Pressing for more information, I quizzed him. "Where were you when this happened? What'd she look like? How was she dressed?" 

Clearly not sharing my fascination, he gave me the skinny. He'd been out all afternoon, running errands for his upcoming business trip, and when he stopped by the CVS drugstore in downtown Decatur, a "beat down" looking woman approached him, suggesting they "get together." Not exactly the exotic, thigh high boots and mini-dress clad vixen I'd envisioned. Wa-waaaaaaaah! *sad trombone*

   
Us, after stopping off for a quickie. Yeah, that's how we roll.
"Well," I laughed, "it's a good thing I'd just given you a nice blow job; otherwise, you might have taken her up on that offer." Exchanging knowing glances of carnal recall, we dove into our pizza, a fitting end to a lazy Saturday spent making love and discussing the perils of legislated morality.

Our discussion started Friday night with Paula Deen's "n-word" scandal. Arguably the most controversial word in American English, "nigger" is simultaneously associated with hatred and freedom of expression. Using it in one context makes you a bigot; in another, you're a rap star. It's also commonly used as a casual greeting among certain age groups. Depending upon your upbringing, social class, and threshold for feeling offended, this word typically evokes pretty strong opinions and reactions, unless you're one of "those" (like me) who doesn't believe words and symbols have inherent power. 
Patti Smith's brilliant song of rebellion: "Rock'n'Roll Nigger 

   
Me, indulging in a little self-expression after being audited by the IRS
Personally, I find the whole "if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention" movement disturbing. Intended to raise awareness and combat ignorance and intolerance, it's devolved into witch-hunting, a modern day Spanish Inquisition that threatens individual freedoms more than it protects them. But, then again, the self-righteous have always loved a good crucifixion, haven't they? They're functioning under the assumption that sitting in judgment of everyone else puts them a little bit closer to God. 

Here's what I think. Designating words as "bad" or "good, stereotyping groups of people, moralizing for others, believing you're right and everyone else is wrong, and being offended by just about anything and everything is what's outrageous. Submitting to the tyranny of ideology is what's outrageous. Accepting society's mob mentality is what's outrageous. As you might have guessed, I am not a fan of political correctness, either. Sugar-coated euphemisms aren't particularly helpful or meaningful in the fight against racism, sexism, or classism. You can't candy an abscess. 

The worst thing that's ever happened to mankind was its break with Nature. Segregating ourselves from the natural order of the universe necessitated myths to explain it all, mostly because "I don't know" became such a scary monster. We traded the wonder of not knowing for the indifference of omniscience. Classification was born, and with it, moral judgments, laws, and expectations. Darkness and light became black against white, and values became more valuable than individuality, and sometimes even life itself. Pretzel logic is incompatible with free thought. No wonder it can't get its head around free speech.

   
Wonder if this is illegal in the state of Georgia?
By and large, we choose our battles, whatever it is that we find immoral or offensive. We've criminalized all sorts of so-called immoral behaviors, namely sexuality and drug use. But, just because something's illegal doesn't make it immoral. For instance, prior to 1998, fellatio--even between married couples--was illegal under the state of Georgia's sodomy laws, a felony punishable by 1-20 years in prison. Yikes! Twenty years in the hole for a consensual blow job? The morality police have no idea what they've been missing in my bedroom! Shhhh.

     

     
Bananas: the naughtier fruit?
Certainly, there are actions that necessitate criminalization. Behaviors such as murder, rape, torture, enslavement, and physical and psychological abuse deprive others of their life or liberty and are unacceptable any way you slice them. But, do attitudes always translate into behaviors? Are words the same as actions? If I don't approve of what you have to say, does it follow that what you've said is immoral? If that's the case, then no one in the human race is above reproach. Who's to judge what's off color in the first place? My guess is that we'd all have been a lot better off had we just minded our own business to begin with.

   
Condemning Paula Deen as a racist for having uttered the same word that's currently glorified by the music industry is not only irrational, it threatens free society. Seriously, before the news of her lawsuit broke, no one seemed particularly concerned with her personal prejudices. Would society function more smoothly and fairly if we abandoned our current legal system to side with the court of public opinion? Somehow, I doubt it. Some of us really like making mountains out of molehills. Legislating morality hasn't made the root causes of intolerance or hatred disappear; they always resurface in another disguise. It's like putting a Band-aid on gangrene, hoping it'll heal.

   
Offensive or silly? (Fun times during anesthesia residency)
As a writer and an artist, I value the individuality of others and their freedom of expression as much as I value my own. What moves or repulses me might affect you differently. In the words of Paula Deen, "I can't, myself, determine what offends another person." I have the distinct feeling that I am in the minority on this issue. A fellow blogger, known for his special (and often brilliant) brand of crassness, once became so frustrated over his failed attempts to get under my skin that he exclaimed, "Old woman, is there nothing that offends you?!" Not hardly. Am I too nonjudgmental? Or have I finally just learned to let things that bother me roll off my back?

     
Spartacus, defensively offended
Before we start censoring words and attitudes, maybe we should ask ourselves if we're really willing to live in a police state. We've already had a taste of state-sponsored terrorism with the NSA's invasion of privacy debacle. If we criminalize speech, we may as well just invite Johnny Law into our bedrooms to join us for a threesome. By accepting anything less than absolute freedom of speech, we're giving our own freedom away. There's a good bit of truth and wisdom in the saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." And having a sense of humor goes a long way, too. People who take themselves too seriously rarely (if ever) have one, which is why they're always defensively offended.

Not being outraged doesn't mean I'm apathetic. It's just not how I want to spend my energy. I'm minding my own business; now, why don't you be sweet and mind yours? :-)


   

     

25 comments:

  1. wonderfully articulated. One of my favorite quotes is by Jean Vanier ( a French Canadian who founded L'Arche, communities for mentally challenged to help teach 'normal' people how to love)

    "You can be right. You can be dead rightand bring deathe to all those around you."

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    1. I love that quote, Melanie. In the end, what does being right accomplish anyway?

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    2. exactly- it is just an ego booster

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  2. I agree every words you said, Kris! Again, I like how you started with mundane topic and stealthily got into something serious. Well done rant!

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    1. I had fun with this irreverent post, Yun Yi. I was surprised at how many "risque" pictures I had of me and Brad on my computer! I tend to view most of life's situations with a sense of humor; it really helps temper strong emotion.

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  3. Yep, it's one of those questions isn't it!

    I find the whole `morality' thing subjective, but can't say I think much of speech that incites violence.
    Cheers, ic

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    1. Yes, it's the speech that incites violence that's the slippery slope. If we didn't feel such a need to shout over one another because no one's listening, maybe that kind of speech would fall out of favor.

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  4. This issue isn't as cut and dry for me. I do think that punishing someone now for saying something years ago while a gun was to her head it absolutely ridiculous. But as to assessing people's character based on the words that come from their mouths? I do that all the time. Paula Deen's lawsuit is about an employee's claims of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. That's serious stuff. What people say CAN hurt. But the prosecution using the fact that Deen used the "n" word years ago when a man had a gun to her head? Weak, guys. Really weak. It does seem we're more reactionary these days. And now, with Facebook, Twitter, etc., our words are frozen in time. We just have to say something once and that could be the end of our reputations. So I don't know. I have no problem with there being a general code of conduct to help keep people from shooting their mouths off and saying hurtful things. But there also needs to be forgiveness and perspective -- two things society seems to be lacking these days.

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    1. I'm guessing that ten years ago, Paula had no idea she'd become the poster child for free speech. I completely agree with you on society's seeming lack of forgiveness and perspective, and how the social media contributes to reactionary-ism (is that even a word)? I think it's not as important that we all agree on every issue, so much as being able to discuss issues in a civil manner and truly consider all points of view.

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  5. Kris, I believe in absolute free speech. I believe there should be no external restraints, moral or legal, on the use of language. I think it's only actions which require restraint, and that's the responsibility of the individual, not the Church or the State. If people can be incited to violence by someone else's words, it's something inside themselves that needs to be addressed, not the words. To continue my execrable habit of quoting myself: "The only tame lion is the one that has tamed itself." Until people are willing to exercise self-control and take full responsibility for their conduct, they will seek scapegoats and victims to unleash their frustrations and passions on.

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  6. Kris, one doesn't have to use specific words to be contemptuous, or worse, vitriolic. That said, some of the words may just cause tornadoes in a cup of tea. Being in a society splintered on lines of cast, and where mere utterance of an old title is a cognizable, non-bailable offence, I am acutely aware of the deep-rooted insecurities and complexes in people. My take is, if you cannot call a spade a spade, just keep mum. It is, indeed. my humble opinion.

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  7. Great post Kris.

    Fear of offending someone is such a joke. So many people spend their entire life trying not to offend others. Other people spend their whole life looking for something to offend them. For me, I just life my life, as it should be.

    Words are just that, it's ignorance which makes them "harmful" or "offensive".

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  8. I don't know this story (the Dean person) but as in any case like this, if the words are uttered with the full intention of offending /insulting/upsetting someone, then it's largely irrelevant what the words actually are. It's all in the delivery.

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  9. You mentioned so many things I don't know where to start, so I'll have a go and keep it short as possible:

    I accept where you are with all of this Helena, but I think words just mean different things to people of different generations. I hate the fact that black people of today (not all but some) use the word ni**er so loosely especially when it was always used as a derogatory word back in the day. Nothing good came out of that word and it's never been used in a positive light. There's some serious stories behind that word and it's not something I mess with, even in a joke. It's just my opinion, so be patient with me.
    I also hate the fact that if white people use the same word - sometimes in the same setting - then all hell breaks loose. Terms such as racist, right wing nazi and suchlike kick in. It's just a joke now.

    In essence, I feel that there should be great freedom of speech, but to a point.

    I mean, there is now an issue with jews and others being greatly offended if you say the holocaust didn't exist. Massive uproar, big time. I know it did exist but why should it bother me if you don't believe it? Now if I was to make wild statements in offensive ways about jews being skinned to make table lamps, then you've crossed the line big time. So there's a difference in the freedom to speak.

    With terrorists. I remember marching on the streets of London not to go to war, but that was the first and last time for me. It turned into many people shouting 'allahu akbar' and I didn't feel it was an anti-war protest but a religious one. Those words seem to only ring out when I hear of violence. I've never heard 'allahu akbar' being used for anything else. And it's a shame I have to say this.

    Must stop here, as too long already, but I do believe in the freedom of speech but to a point.

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  10. Interesting post. I'm black myself, so I'm very aware of the differences in context but I really don't use the word in question because of an inability to satisfactorily reconcile my right to use it with a desire to stop others from doing it. Then again, I take a more intellectual and well-considered stance than many...some of us would punch an outsider that chose to use the word in the face AND use it in their subsequent taunting tirade. It is advisable to know what offends people, if only for your own well-being.

    I'm a passionate supporter of free speech, but I can't condone any of her conduct outside the kitchen at any point. I'm sure you can see why the thought of someone planning a slavery-themed luncheon is unsettling to me. Whether she deserved to lose her job is debatable, but what's not is that she has ceased to become a marketable brand. Such are the realities of celebrity, but I'm sure a lot worse is done and said by people we don't know about.

    Again, certainly thought provoking.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, AJ. What you said about it being advisable to know what offends people, if only for your own well-being is good common sense. I think that's part of being polite. The anonymity of social media really seems to embolden people, and we're all being constantly inundated with a barrage of inflammatory remarks, biased journalism, and the relentless court of public opinion. Very few people seem to think for themselves anymore. Only an asshole would plan a slavery-themed luncheon. But, I have to agree with Bill Maher that being a free county includes the freedom to be an asshole.

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  11. Kris, I could not stop laughing about Spartacus and the solicitation! Ladies of the night working the mid-day shift, who knew? Well, good for Spartacus, even though he got solicited by “beat down” lady and not a Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” look-alike lol! Hey, that was some afternoon you spent with Spartacus and those pics of the two of you are red hot!

    “Believing you’re right and everyone else is wrong, and being offended by just about anything and everything is what’s outrageous,” yes, exactly the problem and well said. You certainly had some strict morality laws in Georgia. Aren’t those morality laws just so dumb? It has really has its roots in religion.

    About Paula Deen, putting aside everything you wrote about criminalizing speech, which I agree with, I have a different view. When Paula Deen uses the “n-word” it’s not the same as a rap star or youths within a community using that word. She is a celebrity chef and people pay attention to what she says. Words are not inherently good or bad, and they only have the power we give them, so true. But the reality is words can hurt and words can incite violence. The “n-word” (no matter how or why she used it) does have racial connotations and an ugly history. Having been raised in the South, and at her age, Paula would have to know that, and to simply say she can’t determine what offends another person comes across as dismissive. How could she not know that some people would be offended hearing what she said? For many African-Americans, especially those who can recall the “Jim Crow” anti-Black laws in the South (only abolished in the ‘60s), hearing it brings back painful memories. I count many of my African-American friends in that group. I really can’t cut Paula Deen any slack on this one. Just because something can be said, doesn’t necessarily mean it ought to be said.

    Btw, I thought your warning at the beginning was pretty funny. As well as the “naughty banana” photo lol! You and Spartacus just have too much fun!

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    1. Madilyn, poor old Spartacus. Based on how often he visits that drugstore for his thyroid medicine, I'm guessing this wasn't his first solicitation. He does not know that I posted the banana picture, but fortunately, he has a very good sense of humor :-D I agree that, by and large, morality has its roots in religion, and morality laws are WAY dumb! I understand what you mean about context in the use of the n-word. One of my nephews, who's white as the driven snow but fancies himself a "thug," uses "nigga" all the time on FB, and it drives all of us nuts. He's just going through an identity phase, but I do worry sometimes that he'll piss the wrong person off. As I commented above to AJ, it takes a real asshole to plan a slave-themed plantation wedding (like, who would want to have a wedding like that anyway)? But I defend her right to say the things that make her an asshole.

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    2. Kris, absolutely we must defend freedom of speech even for assholes and I meant to add something about that at the end of my comment. It’s such a salient point. Funny about that drugstore when Spartacus goes!

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    3. I agree...and Bill Maher's bit on free speech was a real hoot :-)

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  12. Kris, this was just what I needed at this very point in time! I am so grateful I chose to meander to your wonderful blog!!! Thank you for this eloquent, funny as hell...yet seriously dead on post. Your "rant" about freedom of speech is absolutely perfect. We spend so much time being "politically correct" that sometimes our speech seems to be on lock down, as we run the risk of offending someone. We can't please everyone!!! Waste of time trying. The love between you and your handsome Spartacus is endearing. I feel 100% better having read this!

    P.S. look for a personal message coming soon...I want to pick your brain. xoxo Michelle :)

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    1. Michelle, I'm glad my post resonated with you. I've been involved in some very interesting discussions over the last couple of days on the free speech issue, and even though none of us agrees completely on anything, it's wonderful to engage in civilly-conducted dialogue. That's where real communication and exchange of ideas begins, from being able to really listen to each other.

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  13. The warning only made me want to read it more! Very funny rant, rich with insightful points. I guess I have mixed feelings. I believe in free speech but I do think words can hurt at times. I think context, intent and perspective matter. I don't like witch hunts. I also like walking behind my boyfriend at times because he looks pretty hot in those jeans but...back to free speech... Last night my 8-year-old told me that eating vegetables sucks. She's never used that word before (sucks, not vegetables) and I told her that I would prefer she find other words to express displeasure. She replied, "But Mom, the kids at school says 'sucks' all the time. And I have to keep up with the vocabulary." So, nothing personal. Sucks was just on the playground free speech agenda that day.

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    1. Gina, I agree, it's nearly impossible to get past context, intent, and perspective. I do think that with all of today's electronic communication, those things often get lost in translation or misinterpreted. I also think the anonymity of social media often emboldens people to say things they normally wouldn't say face-to-face. Weird world we live in! I love your story about Sophia, and her matter-of-fact response to you. So, are you OK with "sucks"? When I was about two, I used to get very excited by trucks. My aunt, who was still a teenager, one day took me for a ride in her convertible. While we were sitting at a red light at a busy crosswalk, a truck pulled up next to us, and I began yelling excitedly, "Fuck! Fuck!" My aunt says the looks of shock she got from the passersby were priceless! :-)

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    2. Lol..your truck IS priceless! As for "sucks," I never had a problem with the word until it popped out of her mouth. As a mom looking at a child who brought a cherished stuffed animal to join us for a dinner....it's name is Snuggle Bunny... .the word just seemed vulgar. The writer in me also thought it was lazy that she couldn't use a different word. I know she'll use it on the playground but hopefully not at Grandma's house. I think that's the best I can hope for knowing that there's worse to come. After all, there are "trucks" everywhere!

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