Righty: I might disagree with Lefty’s pronouncements 93 percent of the time, but I’d defend to the death Lefty’s right to pronounce those pronouncements. All right, maybe not to the death, but I’d take a good kick in the brisket rather than stifle our progressive friend. Like our Founding Fathers, I believe in the free marketplace of ideas. For example, if some left-wing nutjob advocated monetary reparations for women (oh, the pain of all those centuries of forced domesticity!), I’d trust the wisdom of the people to heckle the nutjob off the podium. That’s democracy in action.
Lefty: Censorship has no place in a free society, but neither do hate-spewing, small-minded demagogues whose virulent ideas can cause actual harm to others. I see nothing wrong with banning neo-Nazis or Rush Limbaugh from airing their repugnant tirades in public. In such extreme cases, we owe the people a measure of protection from the dangers of rabid demagoguery. That means banning hate speech over the airwaves and monitoring who gets to speak on campus. As Fidel Castro said, “The universities are open only to those who share my beliefs.”
The New Moderate:
When it comes to free speech, our stand should be staunch and uncompromising: all ideas, however objectionable, deserve a hearing. And, as the good Dr. Johnson used to say, “There’s an end on’t!”
But I have a confession to make. The woeful state of our culture has convinced me that the free marketplace occasionally goes awry. I have no objection to even the most objectionable ideas, and I would never push for censorship in the realm of words — whether printed, broadcast or delivered in person. It’s the sounds and images that are starting to rankle me and fill me with dread — the dark, satanic ugliness of cultural artifacts aimed at adolescent boys, in particular. Rap music that lures young minds into fantasies of rape, domination, thuggery and murder. Video games (like the vile and alarmingly popular Grand Theft Auto 4) that glorify a brutal, soulless, survivor-take-all mentality. Over-the-top pornographic images, available by the thousands online, that would sicken Hugh Hefner and even the Marquis de Sade. Not to mention all the atrocious “shock art,” replete with sliced corpses and bodily effluvia, aimed at more discerning audiences.
I’m really not a prude, but all my instincts tell me to fight the spread of brutalism and degeneracy. I’m old enough to remember when our culture actually promoted nobility of character (what a concept!) along with the charm and easygoing laughter of a more innocent time. Something has to be done before we slide irreversibly into a bottomless cesspool.
Too late, you say? Not really. But have we reached the point at which we need to start imposing restrictions on the purveyors of shabby culture? If so, do we risk becoming an authoritarian society that suppresses freedom of expression? Whose standards do we honor?
As usual, I think there’s a middle ground. And there’s a precedent.
From 1934 to 1968, Hollywood effectively censored its own productions to avoid possible government intervention. The Hays Code, which went a little overboard in limiting our glimpses of ladies’ thighs, underwear and other charming sights, nevertheless coincided with a golden age of American popular culture. The films of this era still enchant us today, and they did it all without a single F-word. By aiming up instead of down, Hollywood appealed to the best instincts of its audiences. This was self-censorship par excellence.
We’ll never return to the squeaky-clean standards of the Hays Code era, and I don’t think we should. But if we value our souls, and the soul of our civilization, we need to start exerting some pressure on the folks who deliver our cultural goods. Even in the Internet era, most of our commercial movies, TV fare, music and games come to us from a handful of giant media corporations. We need to convince them to stop the flow of cultural sewage. Let’s not dictate what they can produce, but let’s call them to account when they bombard us with repellent dreck. Let’s urge them to examine why they feel compelled to produce such dreck, and whether they could survive — whether, in fact, they might even thrive — if they appealed to our better natures. So far, we’ve managed to convince them that sleaze sells. Let’s do the opposite.
In the end, of course, we get the culture we deserve. It won’t be easy to stuff all those evils back into Pandora’s Box. But I think we deserve better, and I hope Righty and Lefty would agree.
Summary: We should never ban ideas, even when the free marketplace seems to be enamored of the worst of them. But the ever-spreading ugliness of contemporary pop culture calls for serious soul-searching and just possibly a new wave of self-censorship on the part of our cultural establishment.