Tuesday, December 09, 2014

It's the First Amendment For A Reason

Freedom of speech was my first issue. It's been the central guiding principle of my public life, from high school newspaper editor to college DJ fighting PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT LYRICS to grad school TA to public radio journalist to running for office to this little corner of the internet.

So I'm not surprised at myself that on Friday, when Serhat Tanyolacar stumbled into a Borat-worthy ham-handed cross-cultural misunderstanding by planting a KKK-themed statue on the Pentacrest, my first instinct was the First Amendment.

(Borat-worthy: does anyone else wonder if this whole thing is a put-on, being secretly filmed to test our reaction?)

Part of why that was my first instinct was of course my relatively privileged background. And part of it was because I came to it with "warning," from a distance, on line, clicking a link that said CONTROVERSIAL ART!!!1!OMGWTF.

From that perspective, cultural and technological, it seemed clear. The images were close up so the textual part of the piece, central to Tanyolacar's style, was clear, and because of course I brought my own old bald straight white guy experience to the table.

After several hours of heated online discussion, and with too little understanding until the critique came from someone I know personally (thanks for helping me get it, Kingsley), I think started to understand.  Which is dangerous to say, because one of the critiques, of both Tanyolacar and White Liberals, is "you're making it all about you."

Given the timing (break of dawn), place (site of a rally the previous night), the nature of the piece (text being integral but only legible from close up), and initial anonymity, I can understand the on the spot reaction, quoting here "we though the KKK was coming to string us up." Or, translating here, that this was a legit, real cross burning.  (Not EXACTLY a cross burning, because that wasn't the precise image used, but a rhetorical equivalent).

I'm sorry it took me a few hours to get to that point. People have a right to feel what they feel, and I don't want to delegitimize that.

That said, the free speech aspects of this, not just what was said but what it meant and who if anyone should be allowed to say it, are being too easily dismissed as  "privilege" talking.

I'm a free speech absolutist, and maybe that is privilege, and I get, as this incident shows, that free speech absolutism can hurt.

It's just that I think the alternative is worse.

What's funny here is that more people on the right than on the left seem to be on my side, at least locally. There's an unpleasant thread on the left, from anti-porn feminism through Tipper Gore's apologists ("Oh, that was no big deal") through "campus speech codes" to put free speech below other rights.

(You just KNEW I was going to work Tipper in, didn't you.) 
But I just checked the Constitution and I don't see anywhere that guarantees me a right to not be offended.

I see freedom of speech. I see it FIRST in the Bill of Rights.

And I think it's first for a reason.

I usually qualify that with the words of that great western philosopher Ice T: Freedom Of Speech, Just Watch What You Say.  The First Amendment does in fact give you the right to say stupid shit, something I'm thankful for every time I hit POST.   But making your intent clear, Mr. Tanyolacar, is your own job.  So is dealing with the consequences.

As illustrated here.

A few years back I was accused of "hate speech" in my own chosen art medium, this space, by someone with a political agenda in opposition to my own, who used what I considered hate speech toward me. (I got called a Nazi. Hard to misinterpret that one.) My response? It shut me up and I'm still leery about discussing that issue, even though it's a crucial one.

I'm not saying this to play the victim. I've got plenty of other stuff to write about. But if we silence discussion, we don't make any progress. Misguided or under-informed allies will retreat and withdraw. I think it will be a VERY long time before Tanyolacar tries to address racial injustice in his work again.
"There is no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays on this campus.The display was not approved by nor sanctioned by the university. The UI respects freedom of speech, but the university is also responsible for ensuring that public discourse is respectful and sensitive."
This initial response from the risk-averse, donor-oriented, Mason Administration made no one happy. Black students wanted a stronger condemnation, free speech advocates resented the chilling, Orwellian tone.

But it's far from the worst response. No, that came today in the Daily Iowan from David Ryfe, the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication: “If it was up to me, and me alone, I would follow the lead of every European nation and ban this type of speech.”

Again, this is from the head of the journalism school. The JOURNALISM school.

One thing Ryfe does get right: no other country in the world has anything like our First Amendment. In other countries, someone decides. Who decides? I guess that's up to me, and me alone, huh. I just hope it's not that guy who called me a Nazi because I criticized the Israeli government.

Offense fuels some of the most powerful free speech, from Lenny Bruce and George Carlin through South Park and, yes Borat.  And Ryfe's statement, more than anything else in this whole controversy, pushed me off the fence where I've uncomfortably sat since about Saturday afternoon and made me commit: despite the very real pain that I can never completely understand, despite the failed intent and the cultural insensitivity, the free speech angle really is the central question.

The unofficial response from the community gets credit for its honesty, but is still way too dismissive of the free speech aspects.

Here's some examples. There's the bureaucratic cop-out: "He was not censored because of the content of his work. He was directed to remove the piece because he didn't follow required procedure to display it in that space." So if someone had violated procedure and placed a statue of kittens and puppies on the Pentacrest? It wouldn't have escalated to a campus security crisis and probably would have sat there ignored all day. Of COURSE it was about the content.

One of the better responses: sidewalk chalking the Pentacrest in similar "unauthorized" fashion Saturday. Meeting free speech with free speech. That's how it's SUPPOSED to work. And way hamhanded for the UI to wash it off. Should have let it stay till the next snowfall melted.

The calls to fire Tanyolacar: "The university should not support someone with such a selfish, ignorant stance on education." If anyone needs to get fired over this whole controversy, it's not Tanyolacar, it's Ryfe from the the journalism school. The JOURNALISM school.  I'm not sure what's worse: the statement itself, or the fact that the student journalists at the DI buried their lede in the LAST paragraph.  Either way, he's not doing his job. Only possible explanation: he's being misquoted. In that case, still not doing his job.

I just can't say it enough: the JOURNALISM school?!?

The Some People Can Say It But Others Can't: "a Ku Klux Klan robe made by a non-black person should be silenced."  This argument, though deeply flawed, at least, raises a good question. How would this conversation have been different if the piece and placement were identical, but the artist were African American rather than a visiting international scholar?

I know I'm privileged, but I do have a problem with the idea that images or words of oppression may ONLY be used by members of the oppressed class. I don't recommend it, not without treading very carefully and being very ready to accept consequences, this incident being a textbook case.

But it CAN be done.

The combination of December 8 on the calendar and this controversy made me think of one of my first heroes, John Lennon, and this song. It's not "Imagine" or "Revolution," but that's a pretty high bar even for Lennon. It's a little strident. OK, a LOT strident. But it's still a bold and thought provoking statement, and one he cared about a lot.  The title contains what is now the eighth word you can never say on television. And ANY other word would have made that song infinitely less powerful. But he can't say it because he's a rich white male? (In fairness: Yoko said it first.)

I'm choosing not to say the title. But the fact that I'm CHOOSING makes all the difference. If you ban stuff, the way western Europe does, you just give the hateful symbols of the past more power. Meanwhile, the real bigots will just keep their thoughts behind closed doors, making it harder to expose and defeat them.

I also think banning "hate speech" empowers oppressors by letting them play victim. You see this all the time in anti-gay rhetoric: "you're trying to take away my freedom of religion" but really my right to discriminate.

Silencing an enemy is not defeating an enemy. Better to let these thoughts and symbols rot and wither in the open.That's not easy. While things rot, they stink. People will hurt. (Free speech tangent, attention Bobby Kaufmann: apparently money is free speech, but flag burning isn't?) Being a free speech absolutist is a lot like opposing the death penalty: defending the principle does not equal defending the action.

That said: I will admit that such abstractions are in and of themselves a privilege.

The JOURNALISM school.

This has been a powerful discussion since Friday. And even though less people would have felt immediate pain, It would have been a much less powerful discussion had Tanyolacar's piece been placed in a traditional museum setting or even if it had been accompanied with "proper interpretation." The shock, even though that doesn't seem to have been part of the intent, became part of the art, and without the shock and the very real pain, the discussion would have been very different.

The dialogue is beyond the artist now. He started something here, even if he doesn't quite understand what it was he started and seems too focused on his own feelings.

The question is: was this discussion worth it? For ME it was because I learned. But I also viewed it with privilege. For someone else, encountering it out of the blue or doing the heavy lifting of explaining their reactions and emotions to others, which they didn't necessarily want to do, the price may have felt too high.

I respect that. And all I can offer is the idealistic to a fault notion of meeting speech with speech, taking that Pentacrest space with that chalk. The powerful can use both freedom AND restriction of freedom. The powerless can only use the freedom itself.

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