Oct 6, 2010

The right of repulsive speech

I'm really uncomfortable with Banned Book Week.

It seems like a Hallmark-ish celebration of self-congratulation. Just more than a little bit masturbatory.

This is the made up holiday where we, the literate, the enlightened, congratulate ourselves on our sophistication and taste. We, we tell ourselves for the week, are not like the rubes who won't read Twain or Vonnegut, the idiots offended by Harry Potter, the philistines who don't get the importance of Salinger, Sherman Alexie or Harper Lee. We are not like the tasteless, classless, bigoted and basically illiterate who don't like books, and aren't we proud?

It's good to fight against the banning of books, and it's good to promote reading. There really is a problem with banning books, even in America, even today, and it's worth while to call attention to the daily fight to defend the freedom of the press. Even if the week were just a gimmick to sell more copies of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, God knows, the publishing industry could use the help, and I would consider the whole thing worth while.

Except that we might actually be hurting First Amendment freedoms.

The books we're defending, promoting and celebrating are good books. They're books worth reading. Because of this, though, they're defended not on the basis of the First Amendment -- not really -- but because they're good. We feel like we're standing up for the right of the press, for the right of reading, but we end up standing up only for the excellence of our own ascetic judgement. We confuse the one thing for the other, and in practice maybe we replace the one with the other. I worry we end up abandoning the principle of free speech and free press.

The people who want to ban books are wrong about the books they want to ban. But that's irrelevant. The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary isn't inappropriate for children. Margaret Walker's Jubilee isn't trashy. And Tango Makes Three isn't trying to indoctrinate children. But a belief in the right to read requires us to argue that even if they were, even if I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was repulsive, even if T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain was appalling, even if Joy of Sex was positively devastatingly destructive to social mores, they shouldn't be banned.

What happens, though, is that we, with our celebrations of taste, make the battle about press freedom a battle about aesthetics, instead of about freedom. To argue about the quality of a book and the aesthetic value of speech is to cede that that matters, that that's the standard.

We're like the half-way humanitarians who only oppose torture if the tortured person is "innocent," or the quasi-pacifists who oppose wars but only "unjust" ones, missing exactly the point that the torture victim has always been pre-judged as guilty, that that's the problem, and every war is always considered just, every act of horrible hideous violence is always justified in the eyes of the perpetrators, that's the problem, and books are always banned because they deemed inappropriate. Once we cede the standard, we cede the whole damn fight.

Freedom of press is pointless if it only protects socially respected press; freedom of speech only means anything if it protects repulsive speech.

Like Fred Phelps.

There's nothing more offensive than the Westboro Baptist, who go before the Supreme Court today to offer oral arguments to defend their right to say repulsive things. There is no one more socially unacceptable and inappropriate than the cult of Phelps' with their slew of signs proclaiming God's hate. They have managed, with their own take-all-comers culture war, to be deeply offensive to everyone, providing a rare moment of unity for America's normally polarized left and right. The hate they proclaim God has is directed at gays and Jews, Catholics, the Pope, soldiers ("Thank God for dead soldiers," "Thank God for IEDs"), Israel and America, specifically, but also they sum up their God with the nicely general "God hates you." Their signs are offensive, hurtful, classless, tasteless, stupid, boorish, bigoted, vile and even evil.

In other words: this is exactly who the First Amendment is supposed to defend.

This is what the amendment is for. This is what free speech is about. As the Supreme Court has previously ruled, in Street v. New York, in 1969, "It is firmly settled that ... the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive," and, more firmly, in Hustler v. Falwell, in 1988, "Indeed, if it is the speaker's opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection."

With Banned Book Week, we congratulate ourselves for our rightness in liking good things. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's not confuse it with defending the First Amendment. To really fight that righteous fight, defending that freedom to read, it's not enough to keep good books around, you also have to argue for the stuff you don't want anyone to have to read, like www.godhatesfags.com.