If not censorship, then what?

Claire Katz

December 26, 1990|By Claire Katz

JUST AS the dust starts to settle on the 2 Live Crew controversy, we have Madonna. Her video, "Justify My Love," banned by MTV, has (of course) become a best-seller. What is it that makes Madonna unique? Are her outrageous sexual images that much different from those found on most MTV videos?

More than one columnist points out that Madonna is a woman with power -- in charge of her own sexuality and (in the video) the sexuality of others. Some find that exciting; others find it troubling.

Meanwhile, 2 Live Crew has been acquitted. End of discussion; case closed. I find that upsetting, because once again the issue is being reduced to a battle of the censors versus the dogged defenders of free speech.

Before June 24 of this year, I was staunchly opposed to any form of censorship. I was raised in a liberal household. My brother is studying law. I have an uncle who is a photojournalist. I teach philosophy. Except for special instances, such as children's programming on television, I always believed censorship was unacceptable. I reluctantly accepted pornography and other forms of misogyny as legitimate, if distasteful, forms of free expression.

Then I was introduced to the lyrics of 2 Live Crew. I can't begin to describe the feelings that came over me. And those feelings were magnified by the image of people listening to and enjoying the lyrics. I am not sure there is anything more heinous one can do to a woman than what is described by 2 Live Crew.

For the first time, my liberal knee did not jerk so quickly.

As as educator, I believe in the power of ideas. If I acknowledge that ideas and thoughts influence people and may move them to action, I must also recognize that positive ideas do not have a monopoly on this phenomenon. Bad ideas are potent: white supremacy, Stalinism and national socialism are classic examples.

Frankly, I wouldn't care what 2 Live Crew, Andrew Dice Clay and the others said if I truly believed there was no form of harm involved. And harm itself is a puzzling concept. "Justify My Love" was kept off MTV, it was suggested, because of images of bisexuality, cross-dressing and light sadomasochism. As unappealing or even frightening as these images may be to some, are they worse than 2 Live Crew's images encouraging the physical destruction of a woman's vagina?

How is harm measured? Some of my male relatives, defending the First Amendment and the rights of their buddies to read Playboy magazine, will cite studies showing that a person who has viewed violent pornography is no more inclined to rape and pillage than one who has not.

I think such a view of harm is simplistic. Just because I would not participate in a lynching does not mean I am unaffected by our culture's racial stereotypes. And what about studies that show male jurors exposed to violent pornography are less likely to convict a rapist?

At a recent program for students on art and censorship, I raised these issues. My presentation was not a call to censorship. It was a challenge for moral responsibility and action. A handful of students were thoughtful and concerned. More, however, were fearful I was trying to take away their rock 'n' roll:

"We can't censor. How will we know where to stop?" they said, ignoring the elementary concept that we censor the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

I again asked, "Then what do we do?" They could only repeat their response. So much for moral discourse. It appears our society trains its children to believe free speech transcends moral values. It is our golden calf.

I realize I am hard on my students because I see myself in them. We are not so different in age; I am 26 years old. But today I am questioning my old self. I want to know what kind of world we want to live in and how we think we can achieve that world. I want to know if we cannot define our values. I do not understand the concept of tolerance coming from intolerance. How is there freedom for all by tolerating misogyny, or any form of expression advocating the physical harm of a particular group?

Plato said that poets and rhetoricians are the most dangerous because of the power language has on our thoughts -- thoughts which lead to actions. Ironically, many of my students were unable to see the connection between ideas and their consequences. Some think if a woman is raped, it is her fault. What moral consequences will that idea have?

Fortunately, there are students who realize that not all ideas have equal value and some are more harmful than others. If we as a society can't see that, I'm afraid it says more about our lack of moral sensibility than our love of free expression. Still I, a child of liberalism, a believer in the power of ideas and the importance of freedom for all, am left with the unanswered question: If not censorship, how does our moral outrage translate into action?

There has been one reply. From MTV: Ban Madonna.

Claire Katz is a lecturer in philosophy at Salisbury State University.

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