Mister Pterodactyl
Tuesday, March 23, 2004
Last year an event celebrating the 15th anniversary of the movie Bull Durham, which would have included Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon as speakers, was canceled by baseball Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey. The inference was Petroskey didn’t want to be associated with (or perhaps, was angry about) comments that Robbins and Sarandon had made criticizing President Bush and the impending war in Iraq. Among other things, Robbins had this to say: "A chill wind is blowing in this nation. A message is being sent through the White House and its allies in talk radio and Clear Channel and Cooperstown. If you oppose this administration, there can and will be ramifications.” The speech in which he said that is peppered with examples of people being ‘intimidated’ by pro-Bush forces. I’ve written before about this kind of more-victimized-than-thou paranoia.

If one person decides not to associate or do business with another based on a difference of opinion, that is not censorship. If a group of people organizes a boycott to protest the policies of an organization, it isn’t censorship. In each case the person or people are exercising their own rights, not denying someone else’s. Likewise if a person refrains from voicing strong opinions for fear of losing business opportunities, he has not been censored; he’s decided for himself that the business is more important.

Suppose I decide to stop patronizing a local business because the owner is a vocal advocate of a cause I oppose (I’d have to oppose it pretty strongly). It’s true that I’m punishing him (in a small way), but I haven’t forced him to hide or change his opinion, I’ve just allowed myself to make an economic choice for a non-economic reason. To suggest that I’m attempting to censor him is a backhanded way of criticizing me for that. In effect, it’s saying that only one of us can act on our beliefs; if I act according to mine then I’m trying to keep him from doing the same.

Disagreement is not censorship. Even if you and I disagree on some issue to the point of loathing, even if we refuse to have anything to do with each other and loudly condemn one another at the slightest chance, we aren’t trying to censor each other. We can’t, because censorship implies authority. Take the hypothetical merchant above: I can refuse to deal with him, I can avoid him, I can publicly denounce him (I can even be rude about it), but I can’t make him stop (i.e. censor him) because I don’t have authority over him. Finally, authority implies power, and in this case having the power to censor includes having the (Constitutional) right to do so. No right, no power; no power, no authority; no authority, no censorship.

You might say that the cases Robbins cites are censorship through intimidation, thus bypassing the rights requirement. I can’t disprove that, but I need a lot more than a few stories and implications before I’ll believe it. Until that happens my response is “get a backbone.”

I’m bringing all this up because of a recent column by Kathleen Parker. Same deal as the Cal Thomas column: go here, then use the long series of pulldown menus and click on 'commentators,' 'conservative,' 'columns,' ‘kathleen parker,' and '03-20-2004.'
“…anyone opposed to ‘anything-goes’ is supposed to feel ridiculous. If you're offended by hearing graphic descriptions of sexual acts while station surfing during carpool, you're a ‘hand-wringing right-winger.’ If you prefer not to be subjected to others' infatuation with their own libidos - or Janet Jackson's fondness for her own mammaries - then you're a uptight church lady with ‘issues.’
“Of course you could be a grown-up, but in a nation culturally locked in perpetual adolescence, that's a dubious and increasingly alien distinction.
“[George] Carlin's invoking of ‘religious superstition’ as the reason people object to certain words is a clever way of making any objection seem like the silly protestations of unsophisticated, sexually repressed people.”
One more quote: “As long as the airwaves remain in the public domain, the public has a right through its government to stifle the profane rants and juvenile outbursts of (the ranters and outbursters).”

Parker just about crosses into I’m-a-victim territory, but not quite (though I may be succumbing to a little ideological bias here). Generally, I go with the ‘if you don’t like it, just turn it off’ rule. The argument that one should not have to be subjected to accidental exposure to such things isn’t totally out of line, but one can’t live in an open society and expect never to encounter unwanted or offensive material. Better just to brush it off and move on. I do think, though, that the purveyors of such material ought to be conscious of public opinion, and not insist that they be free from criticism, as Carlin does.

In the first case, Robbins is complaining about an atmosphere of censorship preventing free expression of ideas. In the second, Parker argues that some things do not belong in open discourse. They’re talking about entirely different types of speech, but there’s a correlation: where’s the line between freedom of speech and freedom from speech?

Consider the freedom of religion clause. On one hand, we’re all free to observe our religious beliefs and to talk about them openly. On the other, we don’t want to have someone else’s beliefs shoved in our faces. Recent cases like the 9th Circuit Court’s decision on the Pledge of Allegiance and the Alabama courthouse/Decalogue flap illustrate the fault line. Likewise, the claims of freedom of speech made by Carlin and Howard Stern run counter to the desires of Parker and others not to be subjected to foul language or sex talk, and Robbins and Sarandon want to voice their opinions without being criticized for them.

This post is in grave danger of having no point. Certainly I want to be able to talk about my religious views and political opinions and I want to allow others to do so. I don’t want to be accosted by people insisting that I listen and agree with them, or to innocently turn on the television and see something that offends me. Truthfully, I’m not easily offended. I’ll shut down a religious (or political) proselytizer in a blink, and I’ll turn off a program rather than complain about it, but other people are more thin-skinned.
At what point does the one freedom cross the line and violate the second? Where should that line be? How thin-skinned is too thin?

It’s the core question underneath a lot of the topics in public debate today: majority-rule democracy vs. the right of the minority to live as they choose. [And in Robbins/forces of darkness and Parker/Stern, which is the majority and which the minority?]

Kind of like going to the bookstore and finding out it’s closed, isn’t it? After all that, no answers.

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