What ‘Crosses The Line’ Today?

Susan Page
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Wednesday - April 25, 2007
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In today’s society, how do we define what crosses the line anymore? It would seem we’ve become a culture in which anything goes.

We’re frequently reminded in horrific terms what happens when hatred pushes people across a civil and moral line: At Virginia Tech, in the suicide bombings in Iraq, just last week in the brutal killings in Turkey of those who worked at a Bible publishing house, and in all the racially, gender, and now “class” motivated murders of past years.

We’ve also seen people in media cross the line of profanity and slurs. Defining that line and how far it’s been crossed is often blurred by the First Amendment guarantee, which is liberally invoked to cover a myriad of acts, such as flag burnings, hate speech and displaying of pornographic art in tax funded galleries. You may recall in 1989 when the National Endowment for the Arts subsidized Robert Mapplethorpe’s and Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix immersed in Serrano’s urine entitled “Piss Christ.”

In his April 11 Illuminata article, “Desecrating Christ: the New Aesthetic of Terror?” Phillip D. Collins cites religious studies professor Carl A. Raschke’s term for this art (and recent creations) as “aesthetic terrorism,” which “embraces art as an agent of cultural deconstruction ... the displacement of traditional values and the enshrinement of a new moral code ... a revolt against classical culture on behalf of moral anarchism.”

I think “aesthetic terrorism” is a vivid and appropriate term for our times.

Radio host Don Imus has been fired by CBS and MSNBC for a demeaning racist remark he made on air about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Famous for controversial talk, he and highly successful “shock jock” Howard Stern, have ratcheted up their in-your-face language in recent years. Many believe they’ve crossed the line. Others say they just push the limit for ratings. I say it’s a good example of “aesthetic terrorism”.

In light of the massacre at Virginia Tech, some might say it’s trivial to debate the use of language when we should be debating the use of weapons, but are acts of violence first influenced - even encouraged - by images and words? Experts acknowledge that violent and sexual media - to include songs, video games and movies - play a role in acts of violence being committed. Hitler certainly used racial hate speech to motivate followers to commit heinous acts (not saying Imus is a Hitler).

Don Imus has now apologized to the Rutgers players for his racist remarks. Should he still be fired? Some argue that black rappers sing lyrics using the same descriptive - even more degrading words (aesthetic terrorism?) but aren’t removed from their record labels or censored on the radio. But does that double standard somehow excuse Imus? I think not.

Just who should define the “line” of what is just too rude, crude or just unacceptable to say on air, in print, or in art is the question.

Of course, the media outlets are responsible for censoring, editing, suspending, and sometimes firing the offensive artist, writer or broadcaster. Their decisions are often driven by advertisers, which are, in turn, driven by their consumers (or taxpayers in the case of tax subsidized art). In other words, it’s often about money and, in that case, we hold the cards.

Certainly the debate will continue to rage over free speech rights and whether every personal expression, no matter how vile, hurtful, or dangerously influential, is allowed under the U.S. Constitution. But speech is never entirely free. Our apathy and tolerance of racist speech, violent and pornographic media, and “aesthetic terrorism” in music and art has it’s steep downside: the degradation of American culture and the “displacement of traditional values” as prescribed by our founding fathers - not to mention the potential for violent acts that devastates families and communities.

Have our traditional values taken too many bullets to survive? After witnessing the Virginia Tech students this past week, I believe there’s great hope.

Where do you draw the line?

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