Censoring the Future

Does art imitate life? Does life imitate art? Do we copy the violence and sexuality that we see and read in our media and literature, or does it copy us? 

A perpetual debate if ever one existed, and one I’ve talked about here on many occasions before. Whenever it leaps back to the forefront of discussion, however, I’m compelled think it through again. This morning, the debate was at the front of a conversation about the MPAA rating system, and how its closed inner circle of raters is supposed to be performing a public service, and yet are anything but public. There will forever be social scientists among us who want to scream about statistics and observable studies claiming that youth spending time with violent video games and watching violent movies are more likely (depending upon other risk factors) to engage in violent criminal behaviors. While I appreciate the soft sciences…indeed, I make my living in them…I’m forced to quote one of my undergraduate psychology professors here, and note that statistics are evil: you can make them say anything you want them to say. As an artist, I inherently and fiercely rebel against the de facto censorship that is our rating system, and is, in fact, from whence it came. Shouldn’t shielding children from this content be the parent’s responsibility? Yet, as that portion of our societal structure continues to decay, it is arbitrarily decided to legislate it, and thus censorship continues to exist, if not thrive. 
Part of the irony I find is that conservative religious factions were a large part of the outcry that led to the establishment of this system in the first place. Yet, those same religious persons who cling to the Scriptures apparently read them with selective insight. The violence and sexual content of the history and poetry of the Old Testament alone would, if placed on film today, earn at least an “R” rating (as it did in The Passion of the Christ), if not NC-17. So, instead of permitting themselves to become engaged in story, those who cling to religion as a license to be forever comfortable place control boxes on their televisions that censor out language for them (yes, pick your jaw up from the floor, it exists), and search Internet sites that spend their time criticizing the “questionable” content of a movie instead of the artistic content (i.e.: if there’s cursing, its bad). 
The bottom line is, artistically, that violence and sexual content are often necessary to relay the story. If we shield ourselves and  our children from that, then we are depriving them of story (a principle method which Christ used to communicate truth). This doesn’t excuse the gratuitous use of violence and sexuality present in much popular culture media and literature, where it exists simply to raise ratings, and often in a much more intense form than was necessary for the story. Perhaps our focus should be on guiding our children toward quality media instead of allowing popular culture (synonymous with non-substantive) media to be consumed. 
I went to a play last weekend. In the program, on the front page beneath the cast credits, was a bold-typed warning: “There will be gunshots during this production.” I was prepared when the character drew his pistol and let off a blank round on stage. Perhaps the ratings system should be abolished in favor of simply placing information up-front: “There will be violence and strong language in this film.” Then let the parents decide. Of course, that assumes that parents are functioning as parents, which seems to be the exception rather than the rule in our culture. 
Not only does art provide a mirror to life, it predicts it. This was Tillich’s concept of art, that artists are prophetic in the sense that they see where their culture is, and foresee the dangers of where it is headed before anyone else does. Ironic then, that we silence the voices of artists by censoring them in the name of protecting our children. If we listened to substantive art instead, I think, we might warn them away from where their culture may tragically arrive far sooner than we expected. 
Of course, we can only do that if we’re not too busy protecting them…and ourselves… from discomfort. 

Overcompensating for Safety

We knew it would happen.

When it comes to security (or, rather, what we perceive as security), America has this nasty way of overcompensating and (dare I use the word in the blogosphere??) shooting itself in the proverbial foot.

A high school student in Chicago was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct when his creative writing teacher became concerned about an essay he had written. The Chicago Tribune described the essay as “violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location.” Originally, the student was not suspended, but later was arrested.

So, after disturbing screenplays were discovered to have preceded the recent Virginia Tech bloodbath, now we’re going to sweep up anyone who writes something even remotely violent, arrest them, force them into counseling, lock them away from the rest of society in fear? That, after all, is what this comes down to: fear. Fear that creates witch-hunts. Fear that creates the book burning ceremonies of the Qin Dynasty and Nazi regimes. Fear that causes us to throw our liberties to the wind in the name of safety and security.

Look at the story carefully. Notice that the assignment, according to the Tribune, was for the “students to express their emotions through writing.” Any poet that has done the same will tell you that sometimes the result is ugly, because sometimes our emotions are ugly. Granted, these are usually venting exercises for the writer and not published works. But this was a free-writing exercise. The students were told, in essence, to vent their feelings, to write whatever was on their mind. And so, after completing the work as assigned, this poor kid gets arrested for it.

Ever have a thought go through your head that is out of character for you? One that you have absolutely no intention whatsoever of acting on? A passing thought that doesn’t stay? If you haven’t, be careful not to write it down when you do. There’s the moral to this mess.

Here’s an interesting twist on the story, as well. A blogger for Wired notes that the school system in question offers an anonymous online tip form for students to use to report safety concerns to the administration. The source code for the link includes a tracker for the initiator’s IP address. So much for anonymity.

We get angry when the Bush Administration taps phones and monitors email communications without legal authorization, yet we forget that we can only blame ourselves for throwing our privacy and free speech rights out the window the first time we get spooked. Hmmm…

Permit me to point out that the writing of “disturbing” material can be a sign of depression, or bipolar disorder, or any other of a host of psychiatric concerns. As a counselor, I have felt in the past that this has merited my attention in certain cases. However, there is a difference between a threat and a story with disturbing or violent content. Scripture tells stories with graphically violent content. There is also a difference between violent and disturbing content or language that is necessary for the story or artwork, and content that is gratuitous (the screenplays penned by the Tech killer were gratuitous). Permit me to also point out that all of us will suffer from diagnosable depression at some point in our lives. Artists experience this more because we are far more in touch with those emotions. It is our blessing as well as our curse. What we feel, we express in our work. Soon, we will not be permitted to do so, because everything we write or paint or compose or sculpt will require approval to make certain that it is “safe” enough. Soon, the books will be burned. Soon, the hunts will begin.

Because after all, we have to be “safe.”

Is it ironic that we have more to fear than ever from those we expect to keep us that way?

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