Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Freedom of Speech: Is Religion an Exception?

Religion is a sensitive topic in politics.  Now it is in art, as well.

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, removed a portion of an exhibit because people of that religion found the art to be offensive to their beliefs.

The exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" included a four-minute video "Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz that showed ants crawling on a crucifix, as well as some words being spoken, chanting images of bread and lips being sewn and what I assume is dripping dark red fluid (blood or pseudo-blood).  There were protests, and because the video was "perceived by some to be anti-Christian," the Smithsonian pulled that part of the exhibit.

Protestors objected to 11 seconds' worth of video.

Was that enough to get it pulled?

I watched the video.  I thought the images were creepy and bizarre, but seeing bugs crawling on a crucifix did not disturb me, nor did it appear disrespectful.  I can't see how it was considered anti-Christian.  However, the Smithsonian did, in response to protests.

I don't think the Smithsonian should have removed the images.  Just because some people considered them anti-Christian doesn't make them so.  It undermines the concept of free speech, one of the most envied rights in America — the one that allows people to disagree with their church, their government, their politics.

I know free speech isn't absolute, and that responsibility is the cornerstone to effective free speech.  I also know some topics are more sensitive than others — but that doesn't mean they are avoided.  It also doesn't mean different, or more, consideration is given to them.

Freedom of speech almost guarantees that someone somewhere won't like what you're saying/writing/showing.  However, it doesn't mean the material can't offend or annoy: Nazi supporters went to court to march through the streets of a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Ill. in 1977. ACLU attorney David Goldberger, himself Jewish, defended this right.

Goldberger did it for the very reason that makes most of us strike out, to silence: he wanted to guarantee that his friends and family were not denied a similar right to speak when someone else didn't like what they had to say.

A couple of years ago, I received a very critical remark regarding Banned Books Week, one with which I disagreed vehemently.  I thought it wrong, misguided and small-minded.  I was torn: do I post it, like I advocate, or delete it because it bothers me?  I thought long and hard, and I discussed it with two very trusted confidantes.  In the end, I posted it, adding my own response in the following comment. (Hey, it was my blog.)

What if the next comment is from a Holocaust denier?  A WMD supporter?  What if it's someone who is rabidly against cats, or hedgehogs, or whatever deity in which I profess a belief?  What if it's the one thing I hold dear and that person wants to trample it?  I hope and pray I don't fold.

Like Voltaire, I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.  That means you should do the same thing for me.  If you can't, then surrender your free speech at the door.  If you can't give it, you don't get it.

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