Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Your Kicks For Free

Censorship, within the arts, is almost always a very bad thing. Art not only makes our lives much more enjoyable; we use art as a mirror in whose reflection we can better understand ourselves, our lives and the world around us. I don't really need to defend art or variation within it. Where art is stifled by censorship, life itself is stifled.

And alas, art has to mean everything. Everything anybody calls art, music, drama, creative writing, even if to our own eyes it lacks all merit. This is not to say all art must be revered or indeed given any time or space at all, but it must be protected from interference. And freedom of expression is always a too way thing – we have both the freedom to express ourselves and the freedom to access those expressions.

A far more worthy post than this one would be about budget cuts to the arts in the UK, both in direct arts funding and in education, as well as the closure of libraries and all sorts of other heinous crimes against our culture being committed at this time. But I feel I am a blogger in rehabilitation and I need to pace myself. So let me start with Dire Straits.

When I first heard that Canadian radio stations will now only be allowed to play a censored version of Money for Nothing by Dire Straits, I thought it was a bit ridiculous. The song (unedited version here) is about a removals gang who envy and mock the easy and hedonistic life of rock musicians, referring to one of the musicians as a faggot. This context is self-evident from the lyrics. It's rock musicians mocking their own self-image; the irony is not at all subtle. And it is a classic song.

Sparky wrote about this and has been quite upset. Some folk who are against the censorship have used the opportunity to use the offending word repeatedly and mockingly. Others have attempted to defend the word as inoffensive and still others have used the events to attack gay men as tyrannous and over-sensitive - all those classic rants about political correctness. And reading Sparky's considerable discomfort at the debate (if it can be called a debate), I swung towards his position.

And this brings us to an often neglected but vital part of freedom of expression. Part of the freedom to express oneself is the freedom to be silent. Artists have the right not to make art, the media have the right not to publish or broadcast things. And part of the freedom to access art is, for lack of a better way of putting it, the freedom to remove oneself from the experience.

Nobody has a right not to be offended, but people do have a right to opt out, within reason, of listening to or looking at things which offend them. This is why what is allowed on a billboard is quite different to what is allowed between the covers of a magazine – most people who pass have no choice but to at least glimpse the billboard, whereas a magazine must be bought and a page can be easily and swiftly turned to hide offending words or images. All mediums have different responsibilities according to how active or passive a person has to be in order to access the art.

There are lots of situations where you can't opt out of listening to a radio. In various places of work, in stores and restaurants, in taxis, even in the streets in the summer when folk have the volume up and their windows open. So where a word is well-established as being both offensive and discriminatory, then maybe it is fair enough to keep it off the radio? It is extremely easy to access uncensored music, so nobody is really missing out.

But I'm not entirely happy with this. The biggest problem with this kind of censorship is inconsistency. Sparky wrote a bit about this too, and lists some bizarre examples of words which have been deemed unpalatable. It's a very small list of words which are totally offensiveness in any context *. One of the more difficult words for me to hear is bitch, which is often used in deeply unpleasant contexts, but I've never been upset by Elton John or Meredith Brooks singing it, where it is self-referential. Context does matter with many offensive words, if not all of them.

It isn't such a challenge to edit out individual words, but there are songs where the entire lyric is homophobic or misogynistic or otherwise hateful. This is both far more problematic and usually very difficult to define - at what point does a song about a heartbroken man cursing all womankind slip into actual misogyny? Homophobic songs, at least all the ones I can think of, tend to have such a profound lack of subtlety that they are swiftly identified and more or less removed from radio playlists. There are entire genres of music where misogynist lyrics come as standard.

I have to say that I would distinguish between these arguments, about offensive discriminatory words or content, and arguments about art encouraging certain behaviour - like Money for Nothing encouraging people to use the slur within it. I think the argument that some people can't understand the ironic usage and would think it gives them license to use such language is the top of a very slippery slope.

Art is often about emotional extremes, including hate and violent inclination. There have been lots of popular songs about romanticised murder coming through from folk music, sometimes sung from the perpetrator's point of view. Violence has always featured in gripping and moving narratives, without calling us to violence. That issue is not uncomplicated of course, but this issue of art corrupting our minds is more dangerous when it comes to our freedoms of expression.

Anyway, I don't have a particular conclusion here because I'm still pondering it all myself.

Incidentally, this matter is a million billion miles from the nonsense about taking the N word out of Huckleberry Finn, which has been written about very eloquently elsewhere (such as here). In summary, when a book is being used in education, context is everything, and removing the word dilutes a vitally important context

* My wee nephew was singing a somewhat illegible nursery rhyme and I tried to identify it using Spotify. On one album of nursery rhymes I spotted P*ssy's in the Well. Which did make me giggle. Proving that censorship itself can corrupt young minds – chiefly my own.

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