08 May 2010

The First Amendment & The Arts

On 29 March, the New York Times reported that a student production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, which depicts a gay character who resembles Jesus, was canceled by Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. The university authorities cited “safety and security concerns” for the cancellation.

The next day, the Times announced that the New York Theatre Barn would present a new musical based on the 2008 cancellation of a Texas high school production of Rent. Speargrove Presents, which the company has presented as a reading in February and a benefit concert on 5 April, relates the story of Rowlett High School’s intention to stage Rent: School Edition, a milder version of the 1996 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play which depicts gay and straight characters contending with AIDS, drug use, poverty, love, and homelessness. Some parents in Rowlett felt that the choice of Rent for a student production “was inappropriate because it glamorizes drug use and homosexuality.” (In the actual incident, the Rowlett High students performed the songs from Rent at Southern Methodist University. They weren’t permitted to do the show at their school and they never got to perform the whole play.)

Similar barriers have been thrown up at schools in Newport Beach, California, and Bridgeport, West Virginia. School productions of Grease (for the drinking, smoking, and kissing) and The Vagina Monologues have also run into objections resulting in cancellations in recent years.

Corpus Christi, Rent, and The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project’s 2000 documentary play about the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard and its repercussions, have been prime targets for censorship and suppression across the country—indeed, around the world. So have other plays from Damn Yankees to My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The suppressors have been government officials from senators and congressmen to local officeholders, religious leaders, and other authorities like the Texas university president as well as organizations and ad hoc groups with agendas or axes to grind. The targets have been well-known artists like McNally and big theaters like the Manhattan Theatre Club to teenaged authors and college or high school theater programs. Lawsuits, political and social pressure, withdrawal of funding and support, threats of violence and death, and just about any other tactic you can imagine have been levied against theaters, producers, playwrights, and casts to make them stop playing or creating scripts some people don’t like. The reasons range from political to religious to social and occasionally even personal—but the attempts to censor performances, some of which have been successful while others have failed, have all had one thing in common: some group unilaterally decides that no one ought to see a play because they object to something in it. (I’m focusing here on theater incidents because . . . well, that’s my field. But we all know of identical efforts to stop art exhibits; book publications; film productions and distribution; TV broadcasts; and musical performances, recordings, and sales.)

This drive to prevent provocative plays from being seen is not an exclusively American phenomenon; there have been prominent incidents abroad as well. For example, Behzti, a British play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh woman, depicts murder and sexual abuse in a Sikh temple. It caused a furious response in the Sikh community in Birmingham when a local rep theater produced the play in 2004 and the company was forced to withdraw it to avoid violence. Other countries, however, don’t have a First Amendment that’s supposed to protect artistic expression and which is enshrined in the basic law of the land, namely our Constitution. Not only are our governments not supposed to suppress free expression, even of ideas abhorred by the majority of the people, but they’re supposed to protect us from attacks by others who want to prevent us from speaking out. Law enforcement authorities and judges aren’t supposed to side with the suppressors (unless an actual law is broken, such as incitement to violence). Now, in many of the cases of would-be censorship by intimidation, the civil authorities have stood up for the First Amendment rights of the artists and audiences—but not always.

I should point out that the First Amendment constrains only government action—local, state, and federal—not private conduct. In my house or my private business, I’m allowed to censor your speech. Public schools, whether primary and secondary schools or state colleges and universities, are arms of the government, however. Though courts have carved out some exceptions to civil liberties within school buildings, the Constitution and its First Amendment do apply there. Private schools may operate under different rules, but the spirit of the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas and opinions should nonetheless exist within their walls. After all, what should we be teaching our citizen students? How to use authority and control to suppress ideas we fear or of which we disapprove? Or to confront them with argument, reason, and truth? I know where I come down.

I ought to confess here that I’m pretty much a First Amendment absolutist. One of my favorite theater lines is from Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’s musical 1776. Stephen Hopkins, the iconoclastic and cantankerous delegate from Connecticut, declares, when asked to vote for or against an open debate on independence, declares: “Well, I’ll tell y’—in all my years I never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything . . . !” That fairly well sums up my feelings: we should be allowed to talk about anything in this society, even stuff most other people don’t want to hear. The only proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech. You don’t cut people off when you don’t like what they’re saying, you debate them.

The First Amendment gives people the right to speak, write, or print whatever they believe even if it offends others. It does not, however, insulate them from the repercussions. People have the right to express their opinions, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us must accept or condone them, or allow them to go unanswered. Anyone may preach what he pleases, including anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, racism, fascism, and any other ugly idea man has devised, but he may not escape public opprobrium. Your right to say what you want, in other words, doesn’t trump mine. That, too, is guaranteed by the First Amendment. The government may not stop you, but I may respond in kind—or even unkind—if I’m so moved. When the Catholic Church found Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy objectionable in 1964, Church representatives wrote editorials and preached sermons in response—and Rev. Edward A. Molloy wrote and staged The Comforter in New York and Juan Antonio de Laiglesia composed God’s Deputy (El Vicario de Dios, 1965) for production in Madrid. When we hear ideas that we feel are detrimental to the society in which we live, we may not suppress them, but we must speak out against them. Our response to objectionable speech or ideas must always be to speak out loudly in opposition, not simply allow them to pass under the mistaken impression that the Constitution permits their dissemination but not their contradiction. The former is a right; the latter is its concomitant responsibility.

We are, in essence, required to answer noxious ideas with opposing words. The government can't punish someone for constitutionally protected speech, but the rest of us can shun her, berate her, denounce her, boycott her business and appearances, editorialize against her, hold her up to public ridicule and opprobrium, and so on. If she's a politician, we can turn her out of office (or not elect her to one). We need to remember that we have the power to act against people who say things we don't like—we aren't constrained to let people spout off with impunity; we just can't use the government to act for us. We have to let people say what they want. We don't have to just sit and take it. I think we forget that a lot of the time. If someone promotes racism or xenophobia, we may have to let him express his beliefs—but we should make sure that all of us who oppose him let him know it as loudly as we can. Thomas Aquinas admonished: "The law cannot command all virtues and forbid all vices"—indeed, it should not. We have to do some of it on our own as citizens—through the marketplace and the public forum.

I don't hold with censorship either by official fiat or by intimidation. Shutting My Name Is Rachel Corrie down at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2006 because it presents a sympathetic view of an opponent to Israeli policy (with which, by the way, I didn't agree myself) and might "offend" some Jews is about as wrong an act as I can imagine short of killing the playwright or bombing the theater (which some protesters threatened in the case of Corpus Christi and other performances). The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech—but there's no guarantee against having your feelings hurt!

I’d make exceptions for true national security—not the phony kind governments often invoke—and actual danger of injury or the protection of innocents like children and crime victims. A school, particularly a primary or secondary school, might be a special case because of the ages of the audience and the participants and because the society is sort of captive, but when I read that a Connecticut principal canceled an Iraq war play in 2007, I was disturbed. Since the script of Voices in Conflict had been drawn from first-hand accounts of soldiers fighting in Iraq, everyone, even high-schoolers (who could be joining the soldiers in a year or so), ought to hear what they say. (One letter was from a 19-year-old graduate of the school who’d been killed in combat a few months earlier.) Even if the script was edited to favor one perspective, then you write or speak about the alternative viewpoint; you argue with the play, but you don't censor it. That's the lesson the school ought to be teaching. Not censorship and suppression.

I once said that if someone wrote and produced a pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic play, I might not go see it, but I hoped I wouldn't join a campaign to shut it down. During the heated dispute over the original New York staging of Corpus Christi in 1998, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, placed an ad in the New York Times announcing the Broadway production of Shylock and Sambo, a fictitious play Donohue characterized as featuring “gay Jewish slavemasters who sodomize their obsequious black slaves.” In a subsequent press release, Donohue asked, “Would the Arthur Millers of this world rush to defend [such] a play?” Of course Jews and African Americans would be exercised if a play like the one Donohue describes were mounted, and I'm sure there’d be protests and denunciations. I can’t speak for the late Arthur Miller, a fierce advocate of freedom of expression, but as a theater person myself, I’d hope that there wouldn’t be calls for censorship—and certainly not violence. (I vehemently reject the stance taken by the opponents to the NYTW’s proposed presentation of Rachel Corrie, but in their favor I note that the strongest element in their protest was the withdrawal of financial support. That may have been tantamount to blackmail, but it’s hardly a bomb threat. It’s also the right of people not to donate money to any institution they don’t want to support, for whatever reason. I just don’t think their cause was righteous in this instance.)

As Leonardo Shapiro, a director I knew, said, by way of analogy: “The point of an oracle—you support the oracle, you don’t support what it says. . . . When Oedipus went to the oracle and it gave him essentially his death sentence, he didn’t say, ‘Well, I’m not going to fund you anymore.’” This was his argument for supporting artists, whom he saw as oracular, who don’t always say what we like. We can look at this another way—that we need to hear what our rogue artists say because it’s vital to our society’s health. The best voice for this viewpoint is that of Walter Lippmann. (I’ve quoted this passage in an earlier, related ROT column, “Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009.) In "The Indispensable Opposition" (1939), the political commentator cautions:

It is all very well to say with Voltaire, "I wholly disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it," but as a matter of fact most men will not defend to the death the rights of other men: if they disapprove sufficiently what other men say, they will somehow suppress those men if they can.

Lippmann goes on to argue, though, that we need to hear these opposing, unsettling voices since, "because freedom of discussion improves our opinions, the liberties of other men are our own vital necessity." He likens the situation to a visit to a doctor whom we pay "to ask us the most embarrassing questions and to prescribe the most disagreeable diet." While we are free to seek additional opinions, we must listen to them all to determine the best course. As Lippmann observes, "[A]ny . . . sensible human being . . . learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters." We may not like what Rachel Corrie, Terrence McNally, or those soldiers in Iraq have to say, but we (yes, even high-schoolers) should hear it. We need to hear it.

There seem to be two strains of objectionable art which raise the hackles of the suppressors. One group, like Rachel Corrie and Voices in Conflict, expresses or even espouses political ideas or positions with which some segment of the society disagrees. In Rachel Corrie, it’s support for Palestinians and criticism of Israel; in Voices, it’s criticism of the war in Iraq. The other category raises a social objection: The Laramie Project is accused of promoting or defending a “gay lifestyle”; Rent depicts homosexuals and drug use. The latter group also includes socially objectionable art that contains a religious aspect, such as Corpus Christi and Behzti. McNally’s play raises objections among Christians, especially Catholics, not because it depicts gay characters (or even gay Christian characters) but because it depicts a gay character who resembles Jesus. Protestors find this blasphemous and have attempted to stop the play from being staged by one means or another ever since it first appeared. (When the 1999 London première of Corpus Christi was staged, a British imam issued a fatwa against McNally.) The violent threats against Behzti (the title means ‘dishonor’ in Punjabi) were prompted, the protesters claimed, because it was set inside a temple, not because of the subject matter.

At least on the surface, these slightly different kinds of art seem to demand different approaches. While superficially they all look like the same kind of targets for suppression and censorship, they’re not exactly alike. The plays which express political thought that some (even most) people don’t like are the simplest to defend. Political speech is exactly what the First Amendment was carved out to protect. According to the most fundamental belief upon which this country was founded, we’re all allowed, even encouraged, to speak our minds about the ways and means by which we’re governed and how our society is organized. We’re even allowed to preach communism and fascism, even theocracy or monarchism. And no one can say us nay. If Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman, who compiled Rachel Corrie from the subject’s diary and her letters and e-mails home, want to oppose the Israeli practice of bulldozing the homes of Palestinians whom the government accuses of supporting terrorism, they’re not only allowed to do that here, but we’re supposed to applaud them for speaking their minds. We’re supposed to listen to what they have to say, as long as they don’t promote violent acts, and then respond with debate, argument, and speech. Denying them the stage, as the opponents to the NYTW production did, not only doesn’t really work—the play was produced Off-Broadway later that year—but it also forces those unpopular views underground where they fester and roil until they eventually burst out in uncontrolled rage and violence. That’s why the First Amendment was created—so we can all hear the many voices and respond openly so that the best ones, the reasonable ones, the beneficial ones move to the front, but the rejected ones don’t feel ignored and disenfranchised. That’s what Stephen Hopkins means: “Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything!” As he reminds us, no idea is so dangerous that it can’t be talked about. If you aren’t convinced after you listen, fine. That’s how democracy works.

The art that offends someone’s moral sensibilities, especially their religious beliefs, seems to be a different case. A difference of political opinion with a play’s point might make you angry, but it won’t hurt you. If a playwright opposes the war in Iraq (Voices in Conflict), supports the Palestinian cause (Rachel Corrie), objects to the existence of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay (Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, 2004), or disapproves of the use of torture (Christopher Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, 2009), you might feel strongly about their positions but they won’t harm you. When a personal ox is gored, however, people do feel hurt. They feel as if the axioms of their lives are being disrespected or dismissed. How do you defend that? It’s easy to say, like Voltaire, “You have to let them say their piece. It’s their right”; but it’s not so easy to abide by that injunction.

First, there are different ways that art addresses these kinds of topics. The most prominent in this country, the plays we see and hear about because they get high-profile press coverage and are created by recognized artists, fall into the category I’ll call criticism. It was never McNally’s purpose simply to tear down Catholicism. He didn’t want just to insult Catholics; he’s a Catholic himself. He set out to make a statement about feeling left out of the church to which he belonged, being rejected by his own faith. He had a point to make—a valid one, I think, one that should be heard—though dissenters can disagree with his methods and effectiveness. The Tectonic Theatre people weren’t intending to “promote a gay lifestyle.” The Laramie Project is examining a murder for which the creators perhaps indicted an entire community, and for which they blamed lack of tolerance and acceptance, but they didn’t compose Laramie as an argument for living a gay life. A plea for tolerance is not an indictable offense—it’s supposed to be a tenet of our democracy. Moisés Kaufman and his company think we should extend that tolerance to gay people; you may disagree, even vehemently, but hearing their argument won’t hurt you. Remember, there’s no “issue . . . so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” To the best of my knowledge, no one has been damaged by having seen Corpus Christi: the Earth did not split nor the Heavens rend.

Let’s also make a clear distinction between assault and criticism. What McNally, Kaufman, and others are doing is criticizing—they’re not attacking anyone. Many of the protesters don’t distinguish among disagreeing, questioning, attacking, and blaspheming. Any opposition, no matter how reasoned, is seen as betrayal.

The other kind of art to which people object on grounds of moral values is more troublesome. I’d call it “insult art.” We don’t see that much here, though it does occur. (The most prominent examples are the notorious caricatures of Jews that appeared in Der Stürmer in Nazi Germany. I’d categorize those 2005 Danish anti-Muslim cartoons as deliberately insulting. The cartoonists and editors seemed to want to generate the kind of reaction that they got so they could point to the Muslim world as inherently violent and intolerant. It makes Muslims easier to hate.) I think this kind of art is rare in the U.S. for several reasons, and this isn’t the place to analyze this phenomenon. Basically, there aren’t enough radicals here to produce that kind of art outside a small, dedicated group. There are, for instance, musical groups allied with the white supremacist/neo-Nazi movement, and they cut CD’s; but the music doesn’t circulate much outside that movement. We also have too many checks and balances in our production process for public art of that ilk to come to the fore. Too many hands have to get hold of a play before it gets before an audience and a gratuitously insulting script isn’t likely to get past many before someone just spikes it.

(The recent episode of South Park, the satirical TV show, in which Mohammed is portrayed wearing a bear costume, raised threats from a New York-based Islamic group. The group issued a warning that the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, might “wind up like Theo Van Gogh,” a Dutch filmmaker who was murdered because he produced a film to which some Muslims objected. I’m not sure that South Park’s satire fits the insult art criteria since Parker and Stone poke sticks in almost everyone’s eye sooner or later. Satire is closer to criticism to my way of thinking; however, knowing the prohibition among Muslims of depicting the Prophet, Parker and Stone do seem to be deliberately provoking a reaction they must have known would come in some form. Caution and forbearance could be construed as cowardice—which is exactly what Parker and Stone have accused their network, Comedy Central, of displaying. On the other hand, how can you justify openly triggering death threats and potential violence just to make a point? It’s a hard call to make. I am sure of one thing, however: making the threat is unequivocally wrong in this society, no matter how aggrieved you are.)

Still, in the end, the same argument holds for this kind of art, however reprehensible it may seem. If a play—say, like the one William Donohue invented for his ad (and we should note that it’s an imaginary script)—does say awful things about someone’s religion, personal beliefs, or ethical system, we need to let it be seen and heard because it’s a safety valve. It’s painful to get the splinter out, but you have to to let the wound heal. If the sentiment festers and goes underground, it will just grow unseen until it explodes with more force than the simple play, song, essay, or painting. (I wonder how famous Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary would have become if Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms, in the first instance, and Rudy Giuliani, in the second, hadn’t made a clamorous fuss over them. The cause to which the defenders thronged was the suppression, after all.) However offensive it may be, blasphemy is not a crime in this country. Furthermore, allowing such expressions out into the light not only exposes them to the scrutiny and opprobrium of the people, it also exposes those who harbor those ideas. Let them come forth and be heard—and seen.

We can, however, simultaneously defend the right of bigots and agitators to publish what we find repulsive and exploitive and still speak out against the content of that art. We have the right, even the duty, to call attention to what we find objectionable in it, to explain why it’s unacceptable and call for our fellow citizens to repudiate the philosophies expounded in it. We can campaign against the ideas expressed while, at the same time, protecting the right of our opponents to publish these ideas. Ideally, the result of a convincing campaign of speech will connect with another founding principle of our society: the market economy. If we persuade enough people that what’s being sold in the marketplace of ideas is wrong or harmful, they will stop buying what’s sold in the marketplace of merchandise, too. Admittedly, this is a longer and less certain process than simply banning the product by legislation or threat, but it’s the correct way to go about it in a democracy which truly believes in the principal of free speech.

Now, I want to say something about the impulse some among us have to make public insults to other people’s backgrounds or beliefs. Pleading a political or social cause, however unpopular, is sacrosanct. I don’t believe there should be any restrictions on that kind of speech in art or any other medium. (I’ve already carved out the few exceptions I accept for free expression.) There are, however, things we’re permitted to do that we shouldn’t necessarily go ahead and do just because we want to and can. I’m free to walk down the center of a narrow sidewalk so that no one can pass by in either direction, but it’s thoughtless and inconsiderate to do it. I can slip into a newly-vacated parking space even though I see that someone’s been waiting for it (“Face it, lady, we're younger and faster”), but it’s mean and selfish. As we become more and more civilized, as we have when we decided that owning other human beings or passing laws that disenfranchised certain groups wasn't right, we expand the notion of what proper behavior includes. Now we’ve learned that calling people "nigger," "kike," "broad," or "faggot"—or even "baldy," "gimp," or "four eyes"—is wrong, too. I have always felt that what’s called "political correctness" is really just another term for politeness. Now, I don't think that politeness and courtesy should be legislated or coerced, but they certainly should be encouraged. Essentially, as I see it, being "politically correct" is simply refraining from calling people derogatory names or saying ugly things about them because of their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, or religious beliefs. Those who disparage this behavior by putting it down as "political correctness" are saying it's all right to be mean because it expresses true feelings and the First Amendment gives them the right to say what they want, no matter whom they hurt. Well, yes, it does (outside of libel and slander). That, obviously, is where courtesy comes in. It fills the gap between what the law prohibits me from doing (such as murder and assault) and the anarchic savagery of the jungle. It teaches, "Yes, you can say or do such and such—but you shouldn’t." It says, "The law permits this act, but for society to work smoothly for everyone, it's counterproductive and unpleasant." The First Amendment permits the exhibition of art that insults and disparages others, but my response is that it should be the responsibility of the rest of us to display our disgust and opprobrium for any artist who does. I fall back on my earlier assertion: the Constitution protects the right to speak freely, but it doesn’t indemnify the speakers from the response of their fellow citizens. We get to let those people know how we feel about their creations and their ideas—and we should, as forcefully as we can (within the law, of course).

Artists are the oracles and whistle-blowers of society. Painter David Wojnarowicz, vilified by the forces of suppression because he used sexually explicit images in his art and bitterly indicted the American establishment for ignoring homelessness and the AIDS epidemic, was described by Leo Shapiro as "like the canary in the mines—the ones that die first." (Wojnarowicz did die, of AIDS in 1992. He was 38.) Do we dare lose these essential voices? Or even muffle them? If art "hold[s] the mirror up to nature"—including our own nature and that of our society—can we afford not to hear what it tells us? Even if we don’t want to, and even if we disagree with what it says? Like Lippmann’s unwilling patient, we imperil the health and survival our democracy if we don’t.

1 comment:

  1. I could not possibly agree more. Beautifully said.