Freedom of Speech is No Compulsion to Speak

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

What’s on my mind:

As I continue to cogitate, though in certain respects it’s largely a sub-conscious rumination, on the events of the past week in France, plus the shit-storm of commentary that appears through all outlets in all channels of communication, certain thoughts are beginning to cohere in my little head.

Knowing me, I’ll have more than enough to say, I suppose, in due course, but, for now, I’ll say this.

It seems to me that a steadfast belief in freedom of speech (which is a far-ranging freedom, and is not excluded to politics or religion) is not an injunction or an obligation to be compelled to speak. And especially not just because you have some feelings, particularly strong ones, on any subject.

I have been known in the past not to be afraid to speak truth to power, and in the right contexts, I’ve done so, sometimes spontaneously, because it was just and ethical to have done. It is no virtue to be honest, especially if it’s gratuitous. But it is entirely justified to oppose oppression, coercion, or outright lying and to confront it with the truth. I don’t think this has ever made me a hero or courageous. I am the opposite. I am, more often than not, filled with anxiety, but fear is no excuse for not acting. I am never fearful when circumstance finds me in a place that, in the absence of any other voice for uttering the truth that applies, I open my mouth.

I also have learned that nothing is as powerful a weapon against tyranny and oppression, or even mere bullying (when an institution does it, through its agents and agencies, it’s called throwing their weight around) than the skillful application of truth to make the oppressor look ridiculous. Scorn, anger, and righteousness render them deaf. But the potentiality of being laughed at by the public almost invariably makes a tyrant, at least one with some remnant or shred of reason intact, suddenly reasonable.

This latter truth, though, has never induced or compelled me to rain down ridicule, even to the point of disrespect, on anyone or any institution simply for the effect, or the pleasure of voicing my implied superiority. Even dressing up scorn and ridicule in the respectable cloaks of art, calling them satire or parody, does not excuse gratuitous provocation. No matter how deserving the ridicule, some account must be taken of the state of mind, or more likely the mindlessness—never mind the evil beyond any form of reason—of the oppressor. Most of the time, if red cloths are waved to incite beasts to an instinctive state of preservation by aggression, it’s mainly for sport. This is called cruelty by some. With humans, the same rules apply. Cruelty, however incisively and cleverly applied, in the incitement of humans to act like beasts, when that is the predictable (and increasingly inevitable) result, renders questionable the motives of the provocateur. Universal scorn, applied equally to all manifestations of ridiculous behavior and belief, is no defense for the basic cruelty and inhumanity of the act.

Certain commentators of prominence (I’m thinking of David Brooks on the right, and Jeffrey Goldberg, ostensibly on the left; conveniently an ur-Republican, a self-described “liberal…who came to his senses,” and a Jewish liberal who wears his ethnicity on his sleeve professionally) have found reason, through very clever, but still specious, argument to declare that each “is not Charlie…” I am still sorting out what I know now only intuitively to be faulty logic (though it may be overly generous of me to call it even that) to be able to say what’s wrong with these declarations, never mind the possible underlying motives for doing so.

What I find myself thinking, instead, as, indeed, I read the now ubiquitous declaration of solidarity “Je suis Charlie..” and, plumbing my own feelings, realize that I sense no resonance with the sentiment within myself, is that if I am anyone, and it is something spiritually akin to some abstraction that I can identify with the current trials we all somehow suffer together in France, it is this: Je suis Charlot.

Charlot is, of course, the affectionate name bestowed on that comic genius, no stranger to the finer points of ridicule, satire, and the skills required to pull at the heart strings of all, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s name has come up countless times in the last five or six days, because of his iconic motion picture masterpiece of eviscerating tyranny, “The Little Dictator.” The film came out in 1940, and the plaudits it, and its maker, deserves notwithstanding, it also must be remembered that the war we now refer to as World War II (and which, in the end engulfed the entire planet) had already been raging in Europe for almost a year, and it was five years, and 50 million lives extinguished, before it ended.

Truth is powerful. It is necessary. And it must never be abandoned or denied. But, even in the face of truth, evil and tyranny are so relentless, sometimes virtually implacable, that we must constantly remind ourselves that these shifting transformative enemies are still abroad in the world, and will require more than faulty logic, or lip service and ritual to be suppressed.

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The New Decorum

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

I don’t get it. It’s true it’s been awhile since I was a college student, but I recall a wholly different experience… some might call it alien compared to what the norm is today. I’m reminded of the differences, and I always get astonished, though I shouldn’t, every time I come across real life accounts on the ‘net about what life is like nowadays in undergraduate education.

A Website called seems designed to be a kind of teacher’s break room on the Internet, with a regular stream of messages regarding faculty-student interaction, both within and outside the classroom. The inevitable culprit in any perceived breakdown in decorum and academic protocol is traced to what are now accepted behaviors with digital mobile devices, if not more specifically social media.

It’s been three years and a bit since I was in a college classroom as a teacher (or “prof” as all students generously bestow as a title), but even cursory and only occasional glances at the chatter among working faculty today tell me it might as well have been a larger span of time.

In the current era there is a decided preference for mobile devices, as opposed to the organs for speech and hearing, to communicate. I’m talking about children, adolescents, and what I’ll call post-adolescents—mainly college and graduate school age students on the normal educational track; adults who return to school for re-education or a career makeover doubtless present a whole different set of problems to their educators.

Users will text, let’s say, with individuals in close proximity, sometimes in continuing intimate bodily contact: hip-to-hip, or shoulder-to-shoulder, never mind simply in the very same classroom, if not also contiguous desks or seats.

Without getting into the particulars of other kinds of behavior, which are covered well enough in the two blog posts I have listed as links below, the result of this constant digital traffic, combined with what I can only call a gigantic breach in what I think—I am pretty old, and the old memory, you know?…—used to be called things like etiquette, decorum, and protocol, all of the rules for which I also seem to recall we learned long before we got to college. And what we didn’t learn could be conveyed, and usually was, in a short speech, less than two minutes, by the “prof” at the very beginning of the first class meeting of a course. Rarely was there a question, except the inevitable, “does everything on the syllabus count towards our grade?”

Between the endless stream of attention diverting exercises, facilitated by all the apps, media, devices, etc. etc. and the complete breakdown of a common understanding of what is supposed to be polite behavior in any social setting, including the classroom—you know, conscientious regard for your fellow human beings, peers or elders—it’s a wonder any learning goes on at all. But wait? Does it? Well, of course it does, but I alway assume under great duress and stress at times for all participants.

Personally, I’m appalled, and I’d love to hear from anyone with a thought or two, including the current college-attendees (who might be able to explain in a plausible and rational way what could sit well with a humanist—you can look it up—what permits such carrying-on in civilized society).

The links, as I said, are below. I’ll just finish by saying that back in the day, for example, we could get through a semester of readings in the British and American Novel of the 19th century, let’s say, with the requirement that we read the individual entirety of each of about 15 novels, attend lectures, participate in class discussions, hand in an essay of at least 20 pages, take two exams: a mid-term and a final, and somehow manage not to miss more than three un-excused class meetings. The classes, incidentally, met three times a week for a semester. The syllabus usually consisted of a typewritten sheet, mimeographed, with all the book titles of required reading, dates, class meetings, and any pertinent rules printed on one side of the sheet. We already knew not to cheat, plagiarize, or lie. The rest of what we needed was in something called the Official Catalog of the University. There was no email. We knew our professor’s office hours. We didn’t know their home phone numbers, and we knew never to call them at the English Department (in this case), because we had to run the gauntlet of the department secretary, who conducted herself more or less as a combination of Gorgon and Cerberus. To be completely fair and forthcoming, I do remember when necessary exchanging actual hand-written correspondence, usually in the form of notes, with faculty. The mechanism was a pen, paper, an envelope, and the faculty member’s “mailbox” in the English Department offices. Do students still use pens?

Today, apparently, a typical class requires the distribution of a syllabus booklet, often in PDF form, but often as well printed out for the student’s convenience, and sometimes easily exceeding 20 pages. It consists of the usual rundown of the curriculum for that course, with a class by class agenda as to what will be covered each meeting for the term. The rest is administrative detail covering every conceivable protocol with regard to academic behavior, within and without the classroom, what, in precise terms and with as little ambiguity as possible, constitutes plagiarism, what defines an excusable absence from class, the penalties for late arrivals, late assignments, etc., and so forth and so on. Having taught as recently as three and a half years ago, I know it takes quite a bit to fill 20 pages with the sort of minutiae that any intelligent 18-year-old, with a reasonably civilized upbringing, and the ability to read the university (or college) catalog, where the general underpinnings for proper academic and social behavior on campus still are already spelled out, and vetted by the institution’s office of the general counsel, as well as several bodies of academic administration.

If I had the time, and any deeper curiosity, I’d delve deeper into what possibly could have happened in a little over 40 years—I mean sociologically, psychologically, and anthropologically—to determine such a sea change, and I don’t mean merely the length of the in-class syllabus. In the meantime, read these two blog posts, and ponder it for yourself.

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Belief and its willing suspension

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

[Somewhat freely adapted from a contribution of mine of February 24, 2001 on a listserv that was called the PhotoArt forum. Among the illustrious participants was my friend, Jack Fulton, whom I was introduced to on this forum, and who, purely irrelevantly and coincidentally, had the unknowing ignominious distinction of informing me of the dire events the following late summer. On a trip to San Francisco, in part to meet Jack in the flesh, he called our hotel room at the Sir Francis Drake in Union Square, at about 8am PST, to ask if I had the television on. The precise date was September 11. I refer to previous comments of Jack’s on the listserv below. He was not the only illustrious participant, as you shall see.]

The talk was of the preparedness of the participant, the observer, or viewer of an act, or its product, of art—it was specifically photographic art and cinematic art about which the matter arose, but the comments could apply more universally I think.

The original conception of such preparedness, “suspension of disbelief,” is from S.T. Coleridge of course, and importantly, is qualified by the term “willing.” Which is to say, the easiest interpretation one may put on this is that Samuel Taylor meant that the suspension of disbelief, occasioned by viewing an image clearly not reality as ordinary humans and philosophers—those who have not shed their skin as ordinary humans, as they are wont to do when they are being Philosophers—understand reality to be, is a voluntary act, passively so, if not one of active engagement of the state and disposition of one’s mind. In the simplest sense, perhaps the one most charitably applied to that laughable euphemism of the Bush Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan: “the coalition of the willing,” is that at least the suspender of disbelief is not doing so grudgingly.

This, of course, presents a problem, whether speaking of belief or its absence. In that having belief is hardly an act of will, even the will to be passively and perhaps generously submissive to any such act, and as Coleridge was speaking of drama (and hence, pace the prevailing sentiments of our colleague Damian Peter Sutton1, closer perhaps to the apprehension of cinema than of photography per se), the problem is manifold.

Drama is of course not reality, as cinema and photographs are not. (We all do know that, don’t we? Photographs—or to use Damian’s careful gloss, images—are not reality. Not, at least, Berkeley’s booming buzzing reality). What are we then suspending when trying to grapple with the “facts” of images captured in plastic form as the artifacts of some technological process and presumably intended (even if by indirection, not to mention the possibility of unconscious intent) to elicit the need on the part of the viewer to grapple in the first place?

To cope with the quidditas, the “whatness,” of an image—whether in its content (whatever the hell that is) or in its taxonomical elements which might be categorized as aesthetic (composition, palette, tonalities, textures, etc. ad nauseam)—we must perforce use some other piece of the human cerebral function than belief, though problematically (as I said) emotional engagement would somehow require some condition of mind/spirit, that is, if not belief itself, closely akin to it.

This is all heavily philosophical, if not religious, and thereby a little scary. This latter quality may explain in part, once we filter out the blue-nosed reactions of the self-righteous and sanctimonious when confronted with art that is, on the face of it, sacrilegious, why art is so problematic when it pretends to be more than merely decorative or picturesque (in which case of course it is not art at all, but merely dressing).

I suppose if one follows this thought far enough, it leads to the inevitable and ominously self-satisfying conclusion that art had better be disturbing (disturbing to the human spirit–in the sense of rousing one from complacency–at the very least) if it wants to have any claim to being art. This leads to the incomprehension of practitioners who believe that merely to be disturbing (through provocation or interruption) is to produce art. Hence a lot of disturbing, if grotesquely picturesque decorative, work that is condemned as [fill in your favorite sanctimonious adjective] art, when it hardly deserves the unqualified designation at all.

I would suggest to Jack Fulton2, that the movie “Reindeer Games,” from an inattentive viewing by me of the trailer and from your capsule review, in fact better serves one’s understanding of the Coleridgean premise than the other film, “The Bear,” which merely sounds silly, and hence an easy challenge to the task of willfully engaging the imagination. Nothing is harder than an act of the imagination forcing an equally arduous (if not a greater) act of imagination on the part of the viewer in order to give the act (the work of “art”) any credence whatsoever. This, by the way, for me eliminates the question of triviality or any measure of unimportance, as a criterion for determining the significance of a work of art as art. Art doesn’t admit of highness or lowness in terms of subject (whatever the hell that is) or treatment.

1. Dr. Damian Sutton, who presently is Reader in Photography at Middlesex University in the UK.

2. Jack is, and was, at the time, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography at San Francisco Art Institute. He had written, back in 2001:

I rented two films last night to view over the weekend in
our rainy weekend. One is ‘The Bear’ and the other is “Reindeer Games’. The
latter was so dumbly constructed and acted one needed to suspend one’s mind
to sit through it and we didn’t. The Bear, on the other hand, was hard to
believe because the primary actors were real bears.
So, reality, schmeality, no matter what, photography from the still, movie
and digital cameras are all appearances such as a reflection in a pond or
mirror. It/they is/are faithful to what we perceive w/our visual sense as to
be “real” and I don’t think there are ifs ands or buts about it.
The ‘manipulation’ comes in from how the ‘taker’ interpreted this spectacle.

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