Ethics Lunch Forum: Ethics and Freedom of Expression


Participants: Lee Mortensen (English and Literature), Stott Harston (Legal Studies), and Simon Blundell (all three from Art and Visual Communications).

Lee's started with her own Obscenities:

Fiction writer Tim O’Brien’s most anthologized short story “How to Tell a True War Story” is a story about telling stories.  Throughout the piece, the narrator, a former Vietnam vet, gives us story telling advice. “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you.  If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote.  Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty” (175).

I am especially interested in this topic because I write and teach contemporary fiction which sometimes, and very purposefully, “talks dirty.”  Many of the literary and visual works I talk about with my students (Postmodern and neo-postmodern works that specifically choose “antinomian” approaches in their creation of a critical aesthetic) were produced in response to a host of embarrassments, insanities, and “polite” glossings over many of the “obscenities” of post WWII history and culture: genocide in gas chambers and in ditches, the nuclear devastation of two modern cities (and the firebombing of far more), above ground nuclear testing in our own deserts (and the constant reassurances that it was all safe), the increasing use of chemicals and nuclear energy (and the constant reassurances that this too was and is safe), the murders of civil rights workers and politicians, JFK, MLK, the scandals of Watergate (and Iran Contra, and Enron, and Jack Abramoff, and so on and so on), the AIDS epidemic, the systematic use of rape as a war strategy in Yugoslavia and Sudan (and so on and so on), the proliferation of media culture that increasingly merges news, “reality,” and entertainment, and sandwiches swatches of that with an unsustainable “clutter” of capitalistic huckstering all of which I could arguably claim started with the televised circus of the 1950’s McCarthy trials attacking the patriotism of artists and writers because they had the audacity to think something was terribly wrong with the status quo, and some of them were "talking dirty" about it all.

Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, says of her own use of "bad" language:

When I first began to perform these monologues around the world, I realized that just saying the word vagina caused enormous controversy, because vagina is, in fact, the most isolated, reviled word in any language. You can find words like nuclear, scud or plutonium on the front pages of newspapers and they never caused anywhere near such a stir.  The taboo on the word is no accident. As long as we cannot say vagina, vaginas do not exist. They remain isolated and unprotected. Young girls get genitally mutilated and sex trafficked throughout the world. Women get raped and acid burned, and beaten, and no one is held accountable.  This is where theater comes in. Theater insists that we inhabit the present tense – not the virtual tense or the politically correct tense....Only by allowing ourselves to see what we already see and know what we already know are we freed from depression and ennui.  This is possible in the theater if we are willing to strip away the layers, risk making ourselves uncomfortable, insecure for a time, risk saying the word vagina if that's the word that needs to be said. 

The first amendment doesn’t say anything about bad language or “talking dirty,” though:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

Often the kind of art I’m talking about ends up being analyzed, or even prosecuted, with portions of the United State’s Supreme Court’s 1973 “Miller Test,” a three part “test” devised to prosecute pornography, specifically in the case of Miller v. California where Marvin Miller did a mass mailing to advertise sexually explicit, or “adult” books, but of course not everyone wanted these mailers, and Miller was convicted of distributing obscene materials.  The test itself is used even today to help prosecute pornography, but it is also used against art:

  1. Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
  2. Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions [1] specifically defined by applicable state law,
  3. Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

In law cases, all three prongs of this rather slippery, general language, must be proven before something is usually legally called obscene.  However, often in our own culture portions of this language are used to censor, remove, or prosecute artistic and literary productions that certainly have “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”  But this condition seldom trumps the equally slippery “community standards” test.  And the 2nd prong about patently offensive material, well that in many ways is the core definition of antinomianism, a key strategy used by many postmodern and neo-postmodern writers.

Literary Examples

Art and Photography Examples (dealing with a variety of first amendment issues):

Political Cartoon Examples (specifically dealing with first amendment and religious mockery, Mohammed cartoons; Bagley's satire against Mormons)