A couple of days ago I wrote about my concerns regarding the reported Sarah Palin suggestion that we need to ban some books at the public library. Discussion with students in class has reinforced for me how complicated I find the issue.
Not long ago someone sent me a picture of a young man being beheaded by the Al-Qaida. I won’t go into detail about the picture because I found it so disturbing that I think even the description might be enough to upset some people. [And so I censor myself in the description.] I wish the person who had sent it had done the same reasoning. I did not need to see the blade going through flesh. Even though I looked at it only briefly, it is an image that permanently etched itself into my consciousness.
The same might be said of watching Luis Bunuel’s Un chien andolu, a surrealistic/Dadaist film from the 1920s. In the film a woman is shown in closeup. A man’s arm and hand reaches across her and then in extreme closeup slits her eye with a razor (actually the eye of a sheep). One of the goals of the surrealist was to shock the audience. It does. The problem with the images, of course, are they don’t go away. Some 40 years later I can vividly recall the sequence.
During the mid 1990s, I found a video tape of Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I knew from the publicity around it that the film would be shocking. I’m sure I was intrigued by that idea. “How shocking is shocking?” I thought. At the point in the film where young men were forced to eat excrement, however, I said to myself, “Did I EVER need to see this?” [The same I would ask about John Waters Pink Flamingo where a similar event occurs.] My therapist greeted my subsequent outrage with a simple, “Wasn’t it a good thing to only have to pay $5 to realize your own boundaries?”
I asked the students whether there were things they were sorry that they saw or read. Several referred to the violence of the film Hostel. From their descriptions I can see why we at least tout a rating system. Obviously for the students the rating system did little good.
For the students, the argument seems to finally boil down to (a) protect freedom of speech and let the artist do what they want; (b) censor by not attending, not buying, not supporting what you don’t want you or others not to see.
So where do I really stand on censorship? I, like many people, find the answer varied. I don’t believe we need to fear art. I don’t believe in the suppression of ideas. I do believe that not everyone needs to see all the seamier and more disgusting sides of life, that dark underbelly of our beastial human nature.
Certainly as a teacher, I support that there are many images and ideas that young people don’t need to see or follow. But does that mean we censor or do we just warn others that what they see or hear may be upsetting? And where do we draw the line?
As the King in The King and I maintains, “Tis a puzzlement.”