Ideology, interpolation and artistic intent

41M7ZMFHYMLThe Story of O is commonly considered to be a pornographic novel. As with any artwork that challenges moral sensibilities, a “pornographic” novel expose us to things that are morally abhorrent to us, while simultaneously leaving us uncompelled to condone what is described.

The interesting thing about The Story of O, for the purposes of this post, is that the brutality and abuse that O is subjected to seem to actually be morally acceptable in the fictional world of the story.

And herein lies my focus: is The Story of O, or any work of literature that has an implicit moral stance which we find unacceptable, to be valued less as a work of literature because of its unacceptable moral stance?

Second, should the fact that one or more of us feel outrage at something in an artwork mean that the artwork should not be shown, produced or performed?

The contemporary example that made me want to air these issues is the Estonian composer Jonas Tarm, who had intended to play “Marsh u Nebuttya” (“March to Oblivion”) at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago.

The Carnegie performance was cancelled, after

it was brought to the administrators’ attention, in a letter of complaint signed “a Nazi survivor,” that the piece incorporates about 45 seconds of the “Horst Wessel” song, the Nazi anthem.

This, despite the fact that that the “Horst Wessel” song has been used in various compositions for many years, often as negative commentary on Nazism, and was in this piece framed negatively also (via the manner in which Mr. Tarm introduces the segment).

It seems that it was precisely his intention to get people to think about that historical period critically, and perhaps to feel some discomfort while doing so – but political and emotional sensitivities have made that impossible in the Carnegie Hall case.

This is not a judgement on those sensitivities themselves, but more on (as a friend put it) the apparent decline in our ability to interpolate between texts.

The failure of our ability to interpolate, in other words, is our failure to see things in a context, and to play off various texts (including, in the case of “O”, the moral text), off against each other.

More worrying, perhaps, is our conceding to that decline, in setting standards of offence, and what offence legitimises, that cater to serve the interests of those who are most offended (or who can claim to be so).

Victory goes to the most sensitive, which simply serves to incentivise people to be hypersensitive.

The same set of questions arise in terms of the genesis of art – for example, when (if ever) questions about the moral character of the artist matter, regardless of the quality of the art. For example, can (and should) one enjoy art produced by a child abuser, murderer, rapist, etc.?

This issue is, I feel, intrinsically connected to the question of what we value works of art for. It is true that we “possess a capacity to entertain a thought without accepting it”, to quote Malcolm Budd’s paper “Belief and sincerity in poetry”, and to my mind, this capacity is an essential component of enjoying art.

But Budd points out that a reader can enjoy a text “also on account of the poem’s expressing a philosophy that he believes”. If I subscribe to Christian values, I might enjoy Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress because of the way that text glorifies those values, just as Hitler would probably have derived great pleasure from watching Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

But works that can be described as propagandistic, in the sense that they exist primarily for the purpose of convincing the audience of the worthiness of a certain moral stance, are not, I feel germane to this discussion. The reason for this is the categorial intentions of the author.

It seems fair to say that most texts (and here I mean text in a broad sense, to include things like movies), while containing an implicit moral stance, do not exist primarily for the purpose of converting others to that stance. Works that do exist for this purpose may be considered as manifestos, but not as literary texts (for the purposes of this discussion).

So a movie such as Triumph of the Will may be viewed with distaste in the same way as we might view a swastika with distaste, while a text that can be more broadly conceived as containing a moral stance which we may find offensive, without actually having been conceived for the purpose of promoting it, should not be viewed with distaste for the same reasons. To do so would be, I feel, a type of category error.

If we set the bar at “someone could find this morally offensive”, the problem would be that is becomes impossible to find a text that has any objective (or at least, non-partisan) artistic value.

And that some texts have value, considered solely as literary texts, is a thesis which seems intuitively correct – they can make us feel, or make us think, as independent virtues regardless of their (for example) propagandistic value.

While it’s true that the moral or political stance of the audience often precludes the possibility of reading the art “on its own merits”, those merits have to include more than simply those stances.

And while there are contexts in which things are clearly simply abusive towards an audience, or only intended to provoke without additional artistic intent, the fact that we – or some of us – can’t read art in a context, outside of our subjective sensitivities, seems to be a deficiency of and in the audience, rather than in the art.

Speaking on related issues to these, the author of the New York Times piece linked above says (in relation to Mr Tarm’s composition):

I’d like a chance to think about [these issues] for myself. The New York Youth Symphony should program “Marsh u Nebuttya” on its next Carnegie program and give me, and the rest of the audience, that opportunity.

Precisely. These questions are sometimes not easy, but we get no closer to answering them by refusing to allow them to be asked.

Modern challenges with regard to free speech

Below, some notes on three concepts/arguments related to free speech – concepts that I think have become either more relevant (thus important to understand) or more complicated in the last 10 or so years (thanks in large part to the rapid uptake of social media like Twitter).

“Censorship” and the right to free speech

xkcd say pretty much what I’d want to, so let’s start with them (remember to read the mouseover text).
I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.

Private citizens and companies are perfectly entitled to refuse to broadcast your opinions. It’s no violation of your rights that a comment section gets closed, or that your comment is deleted from a blog.

If someone were to refuse you permission to comment, or delete a comment, this might reveal various unpleasant things about their judgement or character. It might be capricious, it might be rude, it might be cowardly.

But they have a right to publish what they like, whether they make the right choices (in your estimation) or not. You don’t have a right to be published on other people’s platforms.

(On a related note, I suspect I’ll soon be shutting comments down here on Synapses simply because, besides a few reliable folk, there’s little of value that gets added there. If you have anything to say on that topic, this might be your chance to do so.)

Offence & sensitivities

Certain expressions are legally proscribed – here in South Africa, for example, hate speech is going to get you into trouble. If you’re reading this from elsewhere, you might have similar laws.

Those laws could be poorly drafted, and they could even be nonsensical (to you, in that you think that “hate speech” shouldn’t exist as a legal category of speech, or that it shouldn’t be punishable.)

Ignore that issue for the moment. The issue I want to highlight is that there are a range of utterances or ideas that could offend people or simply create discomfort without meeting the threshold for hate speech (or any other relevant legal category of speech).

A recent case was the cancelled Oxford debate on abortion, that was meant to feature Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley. You can read their perspective on the cancellation of the debate by following the links in this piece by the President of the Cambridge Union, and I’d also recommend reading Isabel Hardman’s piece, as she makes some of the good points that O’Neill makes, but less hyperbolically and without being Brendan O’Neill.

The issue here is – how can one avoid the slippery slope whereby any claims of offence or sensitivity eventually become grounds for not expressing a view, while still being compassionate towards people who have legitimate sensitivities on various topics?

The one end of the spectrum is the classic Liberal position of asserting that we’re improved by allowing ourselves to hear things that make you uncomfortable – the truth wins out, we develop better arguments against falsehoods, and we might get to “toughen up” along the way.

But these things are all easy to say from a position of intellectual and material comfort, and less so when you’re the threatened group. So, there’s serious room for compassion, especially for Humanists like me. However, there’s a tension between these goals, and it’s one that’s difficult to resolve.

The unfettered free speech argument doesn’t automatically get the win, in my view, because of issue #3, namely:

The corn-dealer’s house is right next-door

Many folk who defend free speech refer to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, and rightly so, as it makes a superb case for when speech should and shouldn’t be restricted. But it was written in in 1869, and it’s possible that perfectly reasonable arguments for then are not entirely reasonable for now – or that, if they are, they lead to rather different policy conclusions than was the case for Mill’s time. Take this passage from Chapter 3:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

There’s the problem in a nutshell: if you agree with Mill’s argument, give some thought to how we should implement the argument in terms of comment policies, Facebook and Twitter terms of use and the like.

Mill is talking about a mob of people who need to be riled up to the extent that they will set aside the time to make a plan, then congregate at someone’s house to protest. It takes serious affront to result in that sort of motivation, because you need to make an investment to lodge your protest.

Today, especially on something like Twitter, a ready-made mob of thousands can be assembled instantly. They might not even know you, or understand what you did “wrong”, because your misstep can get re-tweeted by someone influential, with everyone else simply jumping on a bandwagon.

Reading one abusive Tweet is no problem for most, but imagine reading hundreds of them, from people who would likely never have the courage to stand outside your door, shouting abuse as in Mill’s scenario above. If he thought that the mob outside your house should be controlled, and if you agree, should the social media mob also not be controlled?

An era of hysteria?

Briefly, and to quote myself:

if you train people to expect sensation instead of subtlety, you should shouldn’t be surprised if they keep expecting more of the same, and eventually, become capable of understanding nothing less.

On Thursday this week, Best Buy found themselves under social media fire for tweeting a joke that referenced Serial, the podcast that everyone (“literally!”) is listening to.

downloadFor those of you who are not part of that “everyone”, Serial is a journalistic treatment of a murder, involving interviews with suspects, with friends of the victim, and also site visits to relevant locations, etc.

The murder in question happened in 1999. It wasn’t Princess Diana who was murdered, but someone that had most likely slipped out of the memories of all but her family and friends in the 15 years since the murder – until Serial came along.

Best Buy referenced one element of the narrative, which was the possible use of a payphone in one of their Maryland stores. They said “We have everything you need. Except if you need a payphone. #Serial”. The outrage on Twitter let to the deletion of that tweet, and this apology:

This is absurd. I have no problem with people being offended, even sometimes outraged. But I do have a problem with what people are choosing to be offended and outraged by, and – mostly – by the extent to which they think anyone else should care about their feelings in cases like this.

If you were offended by the Best Buy tweet, I’d suggest you’re either a family member of friend of the deceased, or you have a pretty bizarre value-system. Corporates are allowed to make jokes, and a joke involving an element of a murder mystery from 15 years ago, and one which makes no reference to the people involved in that mystery – in other words disrespects none of them – should not be able to give rise to the offence it apparently did.

How do we stop this positive feedback loop of hyperbole and hysteria? I’m still of the view (as expressed in another older post) that at some point, a corporate brand, or a popular personal brand, will need to stand their ground and say “no, I don’t need to apologise for this. You’re over-reacting.”

Because each time we do succumb to the wishes of the most easily offended, the bar for what counts as an apology-worthy action gets set a little lower. I’m not a fan of gratuitous offence, but if we never allow ourselves to tolerate being offended at all, a dogmatic, inflexible, and rather entitled attitude towards our own beliefs and values wins the day.

In short, we’re wrong much of the time – or at least some of the time – and we’ll never know when that is, unless we let people tell us.

The privilege in not finding things offensive

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

It’s easy to forget that arguments in favour of unfettered free speech often come from positions of privilege. That privilege could be economic, social or educational, but whatever its origin, the result can be a bewilderment at the thought that anybody could find mere words offensive enough to censure.

I’ve made this sort of case before, defending various people and a wide range of utterances – from Floyd Shivambu and Kuli Roberts to Annelie Botes. A consistent thread in those columns has been that we learn nothing by silencing odious voices – that it’s only through being exposed to opinions that make us uncomfortable that we develop defences against them.

Again, it’s easy for some of us to say these sorts of things. It’s easy for me. For others it’s less so, especially if you might have been subjected to years or generations of abuse. So the idealism of a position – mine, broadly speaking – which entails hoping that society will at some point grow up and learn to deal with offence can easily seem rather smug – not to mention condescending.

However, it remains paternalistic to impose constraints on what we’re allowed to read and hear when those constraints are intended to protect us from offence. We don’t have the right to be shielded from all potential offence, even if there may be cases where the offence is simply gratuitous rather than potentially instructive (even if not instructive to the target of the offensive claim, then to the wider audience that is exposed to it).

But conclusions regarding whether a particular case intends gratuitous offence or not are subjective ones, also complicated by the emotive nature of many such cases. A recent case involved an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) decision against River’s Church, who were instructed to take a billboard down following a complaint by Eugene Gerber.

Gerber is reported as saying that the “billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid”. In comments to an article addressing the judgement and the apparent contradiction of an atheist (where atheists often defend their right to offend the religious), Gerber clarified his motivation for the complaint, saying:

During our darker apartheid years, it was ultimately the reaction and pressure from the international community that allowed us to move into a democratic society. And now, as our free speech rights are dying a slow death in South Africa, we once again need the world to take note and join our outcry.

So one atheist in South Africa gets a Christian billboard taken down, and blogs all over the world (atheist and Christian alike) are up in arms about my infringement on free speech. Yet, about a month ago, a Christian had a television commercial taken off air for exactly the same reason, and not even a peep on the internet about free speech. My options were simple, impede on their free speech but the get the message out there that our country needs help, or let them have their billboard and sit back and watch free speech decline. The latter was simply unacceptable.

So as long as their [sic] are people out there who voice the concern at me being able to have a billboard removed, I think I made the right choice. Hopefully the next headline you read is ‘Atheist tries in vain to have billboard removed’.

Limiting free speech for the sake of protecting it is certainly counter-intuitive, yet not obviously mistaken. Gerber could have been attempting to highlight how easily claims of being offended can result in limitations on freedom of speech, thus gesturing at a broader, perhaps systemic problem. But the evidence for this motivation is sketchy – not only because examples of these sorts of limiting moves are easy to find, but also because he appears to be wrong about the facts.

Assuming that the television commercial Gerber is referring to is Unilever’s Axe Excite advertisement, featuring “super-hot angels crashing to Earth” then smashing their halos in order to (presumably) be able to “know” the man wearing the deodorant in question, it’s simply not true that this ASA decision went unnoticed. My browser bookmarks include five newspaper articles and three blog posts – most of them explicitly concerned with whether the ASA was being overly sensitive towards claims of offence.

Just as with the Axe advertisement, one can ask whether the River’s Church billboard was sufficiently offensive to merit censure. While these are subjective judgements, a broader question is whether the ASA should even be placed in a position of needing to make them – especially if they are placed in this position by those who regularly protest the hypersensitivity of others to criticism.

The ASA ruling on the billboard was at least consistent with the Axe ruling. But if a depiction of an atheist having an “empty head” (itself a subjective reading – I’d be happy to entertain the charitable possibility that this image depicts a head lacking in certain beliefs) or believing that they are accidents now meets a threshold of unacceptable offence, then that threshold is far too low.

Regulation of advertisements that make false claims is certainly merited. But in this case, as a colleague (and atheist) pointed out, many of us might know as fact that we are accidents. As for having empty heads, well, as Psalm 14.1 reminds us “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” If a billboard isn’t allowed to call unbelievers fools (on the uncharitable, and more plausible reading), would Gerber now have us petitioning for the Bible to be withdrawn from sale, or edited to remove content offensive to atheists?

Gerber’s complaint to the ASA was hypersensitive and misguided, in that it serves to undermine free speech arguments in more typical cases involving things like blasphemy. But as I’ve indicated, some feel better equipped to shrug off insults than others, and cases like these are thin ends of very thick wedges. Speech (and advertisements are of course a complicated example of speech) can create a climate of hostility, serving as propaganda for encouraging negative attitudes towards certain groups.

I do still hope that we can learn to deal with these insults without feeling the need to run to the courts or the ASA for protection. It remains true that any restrictions on free speech on the basis of offence put us on an unprincipled and very slippery slope. And, as I’ve argued before, freedom to cause offence doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for us to do. Somehow, though, I wish we could find a mechanism to shut some people up – but only the deserving ones, of course.

Feminism, sexism and Foschini T-Shirts

If you want further motivation for depression at the levels of debate H.Sapiens is capable of, take a look at the comment thread below this Rebecca Davis column on The Daily Maverick. The column dealt with some sexist T-shirts that were being sold by the Foschini group (see them here). Name-calling and missing-of-the-point-ing is the order of the day (well, of 3 days so far, and the pace hasn’t abated yet). One largely unexplored problem, though, is that the name-calling on this issue comes from all sides of the debate – it’s one of those emotive issues (like Slutwalk) where there’s something approaching a respectable, maybe even politically-correct view (neither term meant pejoratively), and then those who reject that for some reason or another (often, a bad reason). However, the mere fact that one doesn’t espouse the “respectable” view isn’t yet evidence that one holds reprehensible views – yet that’s the sort of reaction that dissent frequently attracts.

I’m not speaking for anyone other than myself here – the commenters on that thread who disagree with Rebecca might reject what I say here – but part of the problem with these sorts of debate is that they rule certain questions as out of order by establishing a normative principle. So, because sexism is bad (certainly), when I claim a sexist affront it immediately has a head-start in any argument. Furthermore, others are disincentivised from challenging my view, because it’s too easy to label those dissenters as sexist, and thus to silence them. We’ve seen the same thing, over and over, in the political sphere – words like “racist” or “coconut” are silencing devices.

What then could happen is that a viewpoint finds itself immune to, and protected from, challenge. Immune to because of its orthodoxy, and protected from because of our fear of being labelled as racist, sexist or whatever. This is why I try, where I can, to defend things like free speech both with reference to reprehensible views (like those of Kuli Roberts, perhaps) as well as more laudatory speech (Zapiro, for example). We do need to remember that even the well-intentioned can get things wrong. Those of us who defend free speech are often well-intentioned (at least in this regard), but there might nevertheless be better and worse ways of going about making your case.

For the record, this isn’t exactly a free speech issue at all – at least not in the standard sense. Nobody was being censored, and Rebecca and the other 10 were simply expressing their views on something they found offensive, and the Foschini group responded as they deemed appropriate (by withdrawing the T-shirts from sale). If you read the original letter of complaint, it’s measured and contains an argument for why the T-shirts were inappropriate. It wasn’t an emotive rant, or a call for immediate boycott (although we did see a few of those floating around, especially in the hyperbolic universe of Twitter).

The question here is whether Foschini had any choice. On this particular issue, perhaps they did – but at the expense of damage to the brand. Some of the T-shirts (I don’t think all, which weakened the objections somewhat) were genuinely offensive, but was there any room for Foschini to debate this? Could they have said: “We see your point with #1 and #2, but we’ll keep selling #3 because we think you’re being hypersensitive”. In other words, do these sorts of interventions even cross the line into a sort of moral blackmail, where your legitimised outrage can be leveraged without challenge?

The boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable offence (ie. merely risqué rather than legitimately problematic) are not only subjective, but also present a slippery slope problem. With the withdrawal of the T-shirts without any substantive engagement – and with the polarisation of the debate evidenced in the Davis column linked at the top – a new level of what is acceptable and not has been set. And potentially, one less thing can be debated, and one fewer thing can be a legitimate source of humour – because something is always potentially offensive to somebody.

As I argued following the decision by Pick ‘n Pay to withdraw the ‘blasphemous’ issue of Sax Appeal from the shelves, one possible outcome of these sorts of debate is simply a world in which those who shout the loudest get heard, or are taken more seriously than others. So even as we are fully entitled to object to things we find offensive, and attempt to get others to see our point of view, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that our own views are beyond challenge or that we can assign some degenerate label to those who object to those views.

Something which might be worth thinking about, as we fumble our way forward, is that in terms of tone and attitude to opposing views, some of the responses to this T-shirt saga have operated from a rhetorical space quite similar to that occupied by the likes of Errol Naidoo, who is constantly outraged – and uncomprehending – at the world not bending to his will. In fact, it might surprise Rebecca and the other 10 authors that this victory was his also. As he pointed out in a newsletter received on October 26:

There Is Victory In Christian Unity!
Two articles in the news media caught my eye this week. The first, reports on the Advertising Standards Authority ruling that a TV advertisement that featured angels falling from heaven because they are attracted to the deodorant -must be withdrawn because it is offensive.

The second story involves the Forchini Group responding to customer complaints and immediately withdrawing t-shirts from Markhams stores with slogans that portray women as sex objects.

What both incidents highlight is the power of the consumer to oppose evil and advance righteousness in society. These victories may appear small but they are significant.

Since Family Policy Institute went fully operational in July 2008, I have seen many examples of ordinary Christian citizens standing together to stop injustice & wickedness in its tracks.

When a homophobe like Naidoo is in your corner, it exposes the fundamentalist nature that these debates so easily take on. As I’ve said above, there was nothing fundamentalist about the original letter of complaint, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the letter was motivated by the same reasoning as Naidoo’s. However, the path of being offended – and thinking that others need to take note of your offence – is a treacherous one that can lead to Naidoo-land. And we should be careful to avoid that, because it’s good to keep talking. And to keep listening.

On Zapiro, and Draw Mohammed Day

The original text of this column, first published in Daily Maverick.

We all find something offensive. Many of us might prefer to live in a world which caters to our sensibilities, and limits how much offence we have to tolerate. I would like for everybody to be able to spell, for example, and also for most uses of quotation marks in advertising to be outlawed. Unfortunately, nobody seems willing to offer me any legal assistance towards achieving these outcomes. Continue reading “On Zapiro, and Draw Mohammed Day”