When Ideas Are Outlawed...

by David Pelovitz

Recently, I was reflecting on a story some consider to be a work of art. In it, a man comes to believe that his country's leader has subverted the moral authority of the governing institution and that the leader must be killed in order to restore the proper order. In the course of his attempt, he fatally stabs an elderly man, orders the execution of some friends from college, and sets a chain of events in motion that brings about the death of his mother, the suicide of his lover, and his killing of yet another friend. In the end, he kills the leader but is fatally wounded in the process. The popular moral interpretation is that he earned this fate not because he was hell-bent on revenge nor because he threatened the authority of his leader, but because he failed to act more quickly and decisively in his pursuit of revenge.

If we assume that art is meant to teach, what kind of lesson can we expect people to learn from this work? Does it teach us that revenge can be justified, that the individual's sense of justice should supersede societal law, that deadly violence can be justified as a means to an end? Is it appropriate for art to teach such lessons? Does it strengthen our society or benefit our culture? And if there is no lesson or if the lesson is immoral, should the work of art be a welcome part of our culture at all? If such a story is so volatile philosophically, does this mean that many of our society's problems can be traced to Shakespeare's Hamlet?

Most fans of Shakespeare would agree that the artistic importance of Hamlet lies not in the details of the plot or the political intrigue involved but in the psychological struggle Hamlet undergoes and the language through which it is expressed. True enough. These distinctions are not unusual in art criticism. But in politics divergent issues tend to become inextricably bound together.

Consider how the U.S. office of the Surgeon General has recently been politicized, with attitudes toward abortion and even masturbation taking precedence over medical merit. In much the same way as a subtle point about the sensibility of discussing masturbation in sex education classes was reduced to a misleading soundbite about "teaching children to masturbate," so has the rhetoric around how to improve our society been lumped together with platitudes about family values. This is problematic. No one is against "family values" in principle, but most of us define the term according to the values we consider most important. Politicians are much more willing to employ the term than they are to explain what they mean by it. Some examples of how value systems have been employed might help clarify what I mean.

Senate majority leader Bob Dole recently stated that the entertainment industry should stop putting profit before decency and seemed particularly concerned with the level of violence in art. But in his examples he attacked "True Romance" and praised "True Lies" for the values expressed in each. Both films are violent, so why make the distinction? The central characters of "True Romance" are trying to make their fortune in a cocaine deal, whereas the central characters of "True Lies" are working for the U.S. government to battle terrorists. Yet the violence in "True Lies" is designed so that only bad guys get hurt, and "True Romance" shows people dying while acting nobly. The suggestion of the former is that violence always punishes the bad, but the latter reveals the truth that violence can find anyone. I'm not sure if it is more dangerous to let a child see violence portrayed or to see violence portrayed without any sense of its consequences.

Real world consequences cloud the issue further. For sheer violent content, the animated sequence which opens "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" may never see an equal. Many would call this a family film though, largely because all of its violence is mitigated by the cartoonishness of the movie even when "real people" are being hurt. The greatest sympathetic pain I have ever experienced came from watching Joe Theismann have his leg broken by Lawrence Taylor, but no one has talked about banning football on broadcast television. Network news often includes footage of battles, occasionally with the caveat that the material will be graphic, but the notion remains that real people suffering real pain because of real events need not be censored. Conversely, a real person running naked in front of a news camera will always be edited out as much as possible.

Individual words have already been found to be too dangerous for mass media. Howard Stern often talks about his penis on the radio. For this offense, he has been fined by the FCC and railed against by many self-appointed media watchdogs. And yet his popularity grows. Throughout this controversy, Stern has maintained that if the FCC would hand him a list of words he could and could not say on the radio, he would obey their rules. But the FCC's guidelines speak of "taste" and "decorum." Stern argues that his sense of decorum may not match that of all the listeners out there, but they can turn the dial. Many broadcasters distance themselves from his antics by saying he goes too far, but this year the nation's radio personalities celebrated G. Gordon Liddy for speaking his mind even though that included instructions to shoot federal agents. Somehow advocating violence is a clearer representation of personal freedom than discussion of human anatomy.

Film ratings provide another level in the problem. "Midnight Cowboy" remains the only film to win a best picture Oscar and carry an X rating. The film, which tells the story of a Texan trying to make a career as a male prostitute in New York, has little nudity or graphic violence, though sex and violence are both present as themes. The ideas in the film are simply too intense for children. This idea is not problematic in and of itself, adults are certainly better prepared to face some ideas than children. But which ideas?

The examples bring us no closer to understanding. If Dole is right in framing the debate around violence, why is some violence still acceptable? The context in which the violence occurs may indeed determine the dangerousness of the violence, but then it is difficult to argue that violence itself is dangerous. Blockbuster Video's attempts to be more family oriented have not cost any violent films their place on the shelf, but pornography is banned. Then again, using sexuality as the standard of what should be censored is no less confusing.

The Miss America pageant currently includes a swimsuit competition which has been controversial for some time. It has become politically incorrect to judge women on standards of physical beauty, even during a beauty competition. It does seem odd that the competition would include a section in which women are judged on the quality of their physique but that Vanessa Williams would be forced from her perch as Miss America because she had displayed her naked body on film. That contradiction aside, the promoters of the pageant have decided to maintain a 900 phone number so people can vote on whether the swimsuit competition should be eliminated from the pageant or not. The tastefulness of the proceedings is now to be determined by economically-filtered public opinion. The idea is firmly based in many "American values." It has elements of democracy and free market forces. But the product being sold is the right to express an opinion on an issue.

So the Miss America pageant can sell the right to vote on what is and is not offensive, but the entertainment industry should not consider ticket sales over tastefulness in film-making. The only difference I can see is that the former case involves establishing a standard of taste and the latter assumes that a standard exists. But both assume that a standard, once established, will influence all people in the same way. This assumption is unrealistic. George Bernard Shaw looked at Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathrusta" and imagined that it spoke to his own vision of humanity evolving to a more advanced state in which ideas of pacifism, feminism, and vegetarianism would be universal. Adolf Hitler looked at the same work and envisioned controlled evolution that would allow only those with genes he favored to survive.

And this is the problem. A philosophy in the public forum will compete with other ideas and will survive only if it's strong and adaptable. Once exposed to public scrutiny, ideas are tested. The logic of censorship lies in the belief that some ideas are too dangerous for public consideration and consumption. But it also depends on the belief that an idea can be controlled. To various extents, the arena in which ideas compete and even the ways in which ideas are presented can be controlled. We can prevent some ideas from being tested, but we cannot prevent them from being thought. It is not possible to know if Nietzsche would have found more of his own ideas in Shaw's or Hitler's thinking if the three were to discuss his philosophy. But when Shaw wrote "Man and Superman" based on these ideas, he presented them as part of a philosophical debate and measured his thoughts about the issues against other philosophies. When Hitler came to power, he strengthened his own ideas by eliminating competing ideas by burning books.

Ultimately, people will form their own opinions based on the ideas to which they are exposed. Limiting the available knowledge only makes it easier to devote less consideration to those opinions. Prejudices, personal tastes and subjectivity will affect the way the information is interpreted so the risk that someone will form ideas that are dangerous will always exist. But the possibility that a new idea will lead to a better way of living is at least as likely. When people are used to considering many ideas, they learn to judge their value. When they must make up their own minds, people learn not only what they believe but also why they believe it. Once the government tells them which ideas are acceptable, they do not need to judge an idea or learn the reasoning that makes it valid. They simply follow, and the evolution of thought stops. Freedom requires people to make personal judgments. And that remains the best way to keep all our ideas strong.

Copyright 1995
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