Monday, May 27

Outrage and disapproval stifle freedom of speech


Over the course of my tenure as teenage provocateur, your humble heretic has been called many things ““ ignorant, arrogant, pretentious, completely wrong. Such adjectives have mostly come from various religious folk aghast by my practice of treating nothing as sacred, but this of course comes with the territory of being a modern day heathen. And while I’ve always welcomed scorn and censure, there is one point of criticism to which I must object: that my writing is disrespectful ““ that I should censor myself so as to not offend.

I’m no dancer; but I’ve always known that it takes two to tango, and some of us are better at making sparrows of our feet than others. As it stands I’m no such virtuoso. It has never been my speciality, nor my intention to avoid stepping on some toes. That’s why it’s called an opinion, not an apology.

Sadly, this kind of rhetorical tip-toeing has crept into modern discourse, not only at both the input and output ends of the student media machine, but throughout public discourse and academia. Pleasantry and the façade of tact have become customary, expected. And when some mad soul breaks the chain of anodyne genteel, he is castigated and dismissed as a distasteful polemicist.

Though I’ve never thought highly of the likes of Michael Moore or Ann Coulter (who still owes me for that Houdini stunt she pulled last Wednesday), my issue has always been content, not their offensive, confrontational style. There’s a certain nobility that comes with being a polemicist, a hostile, brash nobility many are loathe to accept. In this day and age of political correctness, having an opinion ““ and really owning it ““ is becoming increasingly like the fabled will-o-the-wisp: rarely seen, and rarely welcome.

Consider a rather crude, familiar but nevertheless pointed example: the Miss USA 2009 beauty pageant. When asked for her stance on gay marriage in America, Miss California Carrie Prejean fumbled across several seconds of awkward concession and preemptive apology before finally muttering that “marriage should be between a man and a woman.”

Outrage ensued. Leave it to prophet of pop culture Perez Hilton to present such a charged question, and what did he expect? You can’t expect to stoke the fire and walk away with ice. Yet among his heated accusations in a hasty video blog was a fuming condemnation of Prejean’s “awful, awful answer which alienated so many people.”

Struggling to withstand the idiocy Hilton sells, I managed to gather that he’d rather she answered with an utterly innocuous, vapid platitude devoid of all substance. Prejean’s alienating response, Hilton complained, has no place in the Miss America pageant. In a competition aiming to inspire young women of America, “opinionated” is clearly not an aspect of the ideal role model.

That’s not to suggest that I think the contest any more valuable than a bikini show, but the sentiment remains: People are afraid to hurt others’ feelings, and they chastise those who do. Even Prejean’s disclaimer-prefaced, obtuse answer was met with contempt. Diluted consideration is preferable to honesty on the offense.

Free speech suffered a similar blow in 2006, when Muslims around the world protested (some with violence) a Danish newspaper’s publication of a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. CNN joined the bandwagon of placating the faithful and refused to broadcast said images unblurred, under fear of offending an already angry audience. In an age when image is everything, this hapless omission is a compromise of journalistic integrity for the sake of appeasement.

With such restraints on media today, it seems free speech has but one last (and its first) safe haven: written word. With what other medium can a 16-year-old boy purchase something called “120 Days of Sodom” without the consent of his mother? How else can an author make poetry out of pedophilia ““ and have it go on to be ranked the Modern Library’s fourth-greatest English novel? So long as my frontal lobe still flickers, I’ll continue to compose sentences to my heart’s content ““ no matter how uncomfortable they might make some feel.

Too often are students, especially in as diverse a setting as ours, afraid to cause offense. I’ve had trouble defending free markets in a decidedly leftist professor’s class; in the same way I’ve denounced war in the class of a right-wing hawk.

This pompous commitment to principles has put me in many a pickle ““ the easy (some would say smart) thing to do would be to stick to the safe. But it has never been my goal to write what people want to read. Likewise, a Christian or Muslim ought not feel reluctant to tell me I’ve doubled my chances of going to hell when I die; I won’t hesitate to tell them they’re going nowhere.

I cannot honor any pleas to dilute my views for the sake of appeasing others. There is no good reason to admit the validity of what I think is wrong. Such would be the death of opinion. Slander and hate speech barred, everyone is entitled to offend and to be offended.

If it’s your goal, however, to be loved or graded easy, feel free to water down as many beliefs as necessary. But for honest, meaningful discourse, conflict and offense are inevitable. As much as the postmodernists thought they deconstructed truth and meaning, we don’t all live in a subjective, pluralistic limbo.

There is truth in this world; we can all be wrong, but we can’t all be right.

If he’s completely wrong, e-mail Manalastas at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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