Over at MSNBC, a news story regarding what might seem a small kerfluffle that happens quite often: a woman in a small town who wants a local art gallery to take down and destroy one of its paintings.

The trick? The painting is a portrait of Adolf Hitler. It’s hanging in a young artist’s gallery, and apparently it’s part of a gallery of “icons”, portraying various figures both good and evil. And the local paper seems to just about sum up my position on the subject.

What sharpens me on the point, however, is the fact that the woman’s comments (though she’s free to make them, as I’ll get to in a second) offer a glimpse into a problem I see too often: people seem to assume they have a “right” to not be offended. Her quote: “Freedom of speech? What happened to taste and sensitivity in our country?” Unfortunately, it’s precisely this form of argument that is so odious. It’s obvious that this woman has every right to be upset; she has a very close family reason to despise Hitler and all he stood for, and if she thinks the painting doesn’t get the portrayal right, then she’s going to be offended. On the other hand, if speech is to be censored for reasons of “taste” or “sensitivity”, then certain subjects will never be debated.

Working at Southern Tech University, I’ve seen plenty of examples of odious, disgusting speech. Anti-abortion displays like this one, bizarre displays of raw anti-semitism masquerading as “palestinian solidarity”, and so on. I worry about the violence potential of the second (especially after having been stalked on-campus by members of said racist group), but as long as they stay peaceful, I subscribe to the notion that the proper response to their hate speech is not censorship, but counter-speech exposing them and whatever factual misrepresentations (hell with it: outright lies) for what they are.


Category: Newsroom

About the Author

Guy Webster (web) is an IT specialist at Southern Tech University, where he and Will Truman attended college.

11 Responses to The Problem With Self-Censorship

  1. rob says:

    I suggest the painting be destroyed by burning, preferably with books as kindling. I’m not super-clear why the offended woman was so offended. She says the Hitler portrait shows him in a positive light as well as negatively. Should pictures of Hitler be banned, or does he need horns and a barbed tail in the painting? Real-life evil doesn’t usually come out screaming “I’m evil.” Hell, bad people probably don’t wake up in the morning thinking “how can I be a monster today?”

    I do think having Darth Vader and Hitler as “icons” of evil cheapens the series. That doesn’t seem to be the complainants problem with it.

  2. trumwill says:

    I think that in absence of government censorship, self-censorship becomes pretty important. Of course, it’s also important for there to be a push-back. The tug of war between the expression of ideas and the desire not to be inundated with offensive expression is an important part of a larger discussion on appropriateness.

    In the case of the Hitler poster, I lean in favor of expression in large part because it is being displayed in an appropriate forum. If you go to an art gallery, you are expecting to see some diversity of ideas and expression.

    I feel a little differently about the anti-abortion display at Sotech. People running across that are not going to see a 35-foot disembodied fetus. They’re going to class. Whether the university should allow it or not is a bit of a different question. It’s a tough call. I mostly ask that they be consistent (if they show a disgorged fetus, they have have to also be willing to show bloody pictures from the War in Iraq, and vice-versa).

  3. stone says:

    I’m going to see a Wagner opera next week, and apparently there will be protesters there because Wagner had some anti-Semitic views. The man’s been dead for more than a century, and the opera itself is not anti-Semitic, but there you go.

    Web, why did the Palestinians stalk you? Are you Jewish?

  4. stone says:

    Another example of the extreme tiptoeing required around any issue connected to Jewish people: Veteran journalist Helen Thomas (a Lebanese-American) chose to retire last week after people got upset because she said, basically, that Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish homeland. She didn’t say anything negative about Jews *as Jews*, just as settlers of Palestine. She said they were an occupying force in the area, and should go back to Europe.

    She’s not the only respected person in the world who holds that political view of Israel. But this was considered anti-Semitism sufficient to shame her into retirement.

  5. trumwill says:

    I think that the rules are slightly different when it comes to people and personalities than when it comes to art. I think this is particularly true when the person is in a public-relations position.

    With regards to Helen Thomas, she was a member of the White House Press Corps mostly as a courtesy for her years as a reporter. She depended on the goodwill that she lost. That she lost her syndicated column as well, though, strikes me as a bit more dubious. It was her job as a columnist to express her opinion. Her critical views of Israel were well known and were a part of what she did. It struck me as a bit of a cowardly move to strip her of that.

    There are various other examples with personalities and a lot of them are complicated. When John Rocker mouthed off, for instance, the question became whether public relations should be considered part of a public athlete’s job. The Braves decided that it was so. It was a decision I disagreed with at the time, but have since come around to.

    Trent Lott is another example with his kind words for Strom Thurmond. This was less of a close call in my view. His views had a direct relationship with his jobs and expressing views offensive to the population has repercussions. Ditto for Don Imus, who might otherwise get a pass for venue (from my first comment) but whose mouth-offs had a direct relevance.

    Regarding Wagner and other artists, I am inclined to say that we should let the art speak for itself and as long as the art itself was not anti-semitic, it should be allowed to stand. Of course, then you get the Dixie Chicks, which on one hand had art that was utterly unoffensive but on the other hand whose success in country music was dependent on the goodwill of fans and they lost that goodwill and that makes sense to me. Wagner, though, is dead, and was raised in a different time. That matters, too.

  6. stone says:

    “People running across that are not going to see a 35-foot disembodied fetus. They’re going to class. Whether the university should allow it or not is a bit of a different question. It’s a tough call. I mostly ask that they be consistent (if they show a disgorged fetus, they have have to also be willing to show bloody pictures from the War in Iraq, and vice-versa).”

    I’m big on the concept of “the breakfast test,” that newspapers use, ie, would you want to come across it while you’re eating breakfast.

    Emotionally charged is one thing. Gross is another.

  7. stone says:

    “5.I think that the rules are slightly different when it comes to people and personalities than when it comes to art. I think this is particularly true when the person is in a public-relations position.”

    I think it’s more an issue of, what’s a political issue versus what’s a racial issue. I think Thomas’ comments were political and should be viewed as such. She wasn’t commenting on the character or qualities of Jews; she was commenting on strategy for peace in Palestine. If people really saw it as just a political issue, like wanting to raise or lower taxes, they would not have gotten so upset.

    It’s the same problem as with immigration: What should be a political and economic issue (at least as I see it) always degenerates into a racial issue. If you like Mexican immigration that means you like Mexicans, and the opposite if you oppose it. People discuss the merits of Mexicans themselves instead of the economic issues.

  8. trumwill says:

    True. Identity politics is certainly the great amplifier. This is especially true when the identities involved are binary and easy to identify (black and white yes, rich and poor no).

    Even the Dixie Chicks comments can be seen in this light, though not as much as the other examples. There was, at the time, an “us” and “them” in the country and the Dixie Chicks revealed themselves to their fanbase as one of “them.”

    Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult with some issues not to view it through the prism of identity. Even if one’s own views are completely political and economic, one is typically discussing the issue with someone that is coming at it from the perspective of someone that really likes or dislikes a particular demographic. It’s one of the reasons that when I look at the issues I refuse to discuss, they tend to veer pretty heavily towards identity-based politics.

  9. web says:

    Stone,

    I made the “mistake” (I don’t consider it such, but whatever) of publishing a rather middle-of-the-line article condemning Israel for things that I considered mistakes at the time (and mostly still do), the Palestinians for their terrorism and for not negotiating in good faith, and the Arab world in general for its attitude towards the whole affair (keeping the Palestinians as a captive, impoverished group essentially to be used as a proxy source of “warriors” and PR stunts against Israel).

    I had a few campus Jews who were a bit upset at my pointing out things about Israel that they claimed were justified if distasteful. The Palestinian side varied from disgruntled to outright frightening, including a few who decided that their goal was to stalk me around campus for a few weeks trying to dig up dirt or instigate a fight of some sort. The only other group on campus so brazenly psychotic were Scientologists.

  10. Peter says:

    I’m going to see a Wagner opera next week, and apparently there will be protesters there because Wagner had some anti-Semitic views. The man’s been dead for more than a century, and the opera itself is not anti-Semitic, but there you go.

    Wagner may have been dead for more than a century, and in fact he was born nearly two centuries ago (1813), but he has a granddaughter who is still alive today.

  11. Nanani says:

    My uni campus had graphic anti-abortion displays too. After the kerfluffle one year, it was decided (by the Student Union IIRC) that they had to limit the display to a certain area of the campus, make it clearly labeled, and shield it from view from any angle other than the one the clearly labeled entranced. That way, people who cared about the issue would see it but squeamish students (like me), easily offended students, random disinterested passersby and the like would not be made to lose their lunches.

    I’m pretty sure the display was made by a religious student group or a coalition of multiple such, though I can’t recall the denomination(s) involved.

    That’s probably the best solution all around. Warn people that they may be offended and offer a clear opportunity to turn back. Don’t censor views, no matter how distasteful.

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