In September 1985, the U.S. Senate hosted an unusual guest. He wasn’t a nattily attired administration official or a clean-shaven CEO. He was none other than musician Frank Zappa. The subject on the agenda: the corrupting influence on American youth of rock music rife with sex, violence and spirit of rebellion. The hearing was held at the request of the Parents Music Resource Center, which wanted albums to contain warnings about “problematic” songs. Among the controversial tracks was Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” which has a verse about a woman masturbating. “It is outrageous filth and we must do something about it,”’ said Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, of the phenomena discussed in the hearing. “If I could find some way constitutionally to get rid of it, I would.”
In his testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Zappa, whose songs include descriptions of sex as well as defecation jokes, and are racist and misogynist, declared that the suggestion of the parents organization to place warning labels on record albums was “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense” and “the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.”
Ultimately, the Recording Industry Association of America capitulated and agreed to the use of parental advisory stickers against content that might be deemed unsuitable for children. One of the albums so labeled was Zappa’s “Jazz from Hell,” an instrumental work that contains not a single word. It was put on the list because of the title of one of its numbers: “G-Spot Tornado.”
Three decades later, comedian Dave Chappelle was severely criticized for making jokes about trans people, casting doubt on the testimony of people who had complained about Michael Jackson and mocking what he called the hypersensitivity of the Pride community. Like Nikki’s masturbating in Prince’s song, the content of Chappelle’s act was perceived as offensive: He was branded a homophobe, a conservative, a provocateur, out of date, a supporter of the hegemony or simply not funny.
There’s a similarity between the Senate committee’s hearing about rock music and the informal public hearing to which Chappelle’s comedy was subjected. More significant, however, are the differences – above all the identity of the critics. If in the past those aiming to silence artists and their “filth” emerged from the conservative establishment, today the critics are often young people who style themselves liberals, progressives and ardent supporters of acceptance and inclusion.
The act of casting moral judgment on art is not a new phenomenon. As early as the fourth century B.C.E., Plato wrote in “The Republic” that to misrepresent reality, the heroes or the gods in a work of art is to lie. And because there is nothing fine about a lie, it is necessary “to supervise the makers of tales.” Throughout the 20th century, central currents in art emphasized its form and how it expresses the self. At present, however, the moral aspect appears to have become the intellectual bon ton. In academia, in the intellectual press and on social media, increasing emphasis is placed on the ethical aspects of works of art.
For example, in this newspaper, which is perhaps the last so-called tribal campfire of the left, this approach is found in allegations that “Ninja Israel” is a sexist program; that the children’s book “The Giving Tree” portrays a sadomasochistic relationship; that a new thriller TV series is exploitative, because the plot revolves around the death of a child; that a coffee commercial is actually a missionary campaign for Israel; or that an action film crossed the boundary of good taste, because the victims in it are Trump supporters (as opposed to the Japanese who are murdered in “Kill Bill,” who are left and right alike). And that’s just a small sample from the past few months.
If the 20th-century canon was constructed on the basis of a particular conception of quality (critics will say, rightly, a white-male conception of quality), the 21st-century canon is being constructed on the basis of completely different considerations: the creator’s gender and ethnic identity; the population groups represented in the works; the “silenced voices” that are given expression; the moral wrongs that flaw the works; and, perhaps most important, whom the work offends.
For example, alongside the novel “The Kite Runner,” which was the subject of an Islamophobic boycott in some American school curricula and libraries, one of the most boycotted books in 2017 was “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a novel by the Native-American writer Sherman Alexie. The reason: It addresses controversial issues in the Native American community, such as alcohol and drug addiction, is suspected of presenting stereotypical descriptions of that community and it also includes obscenities. At this singular historical moment, Christian parents who are boycotting Harry Potter books because they promotes devil worship, find themselves aligned with progressive educators who are unwilling to allow their children to be exposed to content they deem offensive. Both groups are resorting to the same methods.
The adoption of a moralistic stance by the intellectual elite attests to a conceptual shift regarding the very essence and purpose of art, along with adoption of a conservative position in regard to morality and pluralism. More people than ever before now have free access to a staggering range of works. It’s easier than ever to create art, too, in light of the enviable diversity of means and platforms. But instead of this abundance leading to an unprecedented richness of ideas and ideologies, it is being channeled through a sound box of messages.
In 2011, a publisher in Alabama decided to produce a “clean” version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in which all references to “niggers” and “Injuns” were deleted. “Nigger Jim” became “Slave Jim.” Here in Israel, last Hanukkah, the organizers of the traditional Festigal show for youth decided to omit the famous “freha” – a pejorative term referring to Mizrahi women – from “The Freha Song” (originally sung by Ofra Haza) and to replace it with inoffensive hand-clapping. “The Freha Song” morphed into “I Feel Like Dancing.”
We can cautiously predict that this tendency will only continue, in a host of versions and methods. Sony Pictures has decided to offer viewers of its streaming services in the United States “clean” versions – free of obscenities, sex and graphic violence – of its films. Recently, Disney Studios, too, announced that it will add to its new direct-viewing service trigger warnings for children’s movies that include racial stereotypes, so parents will be prepared in advance that their offspring are about to be exposed, for example, to Tiger Lily and her Native American companions in “Peter Pan.” Presumably, the parents will also need to explain to the children, who have just come back from preschool, that Walt Disney was actually anti-Semitic and that conceptions of political correctness have changed considerably since 1953.
It’s not accidental that this soft censorship is being wielded first on works aimed at children. It’s easy to use the idea of protection of children as an excuse for what, ultimately, is simply censorship. That’s how it was when Congress added a warning to Zappa and Prince; that’s how it was when people in suits explained on television that the computer game Grand Theft Auto perpetuates twisted conceptions of violence; and that’s what’s happening now, in the struggle to silence anything liable to cause offense to anyone.
No orderly ideology underlies this phenomenon. Moral critique is unleashed almost randomly, in keeping with hidden trends in social media and sensitivities relating to identity. In many cases, it’s not the content that is offensive but the speaker, the timing, the platform or the audience. The only ideology guiding this criticism is that of the self: Gen Y demands not to be hurt and to be perceived as not being hurtful. Always at the center of the debate is a person’s natural and inalienable right not to be offended.
Besides the fact that this notion is simplistic and aggressive, its essence is the childish attitude of its supporters toward themselves. Speakers against the “offensive” are assuming the role not only of the preschool teacher but also of preschool children who will be scarred if they’re exposed to something they don’t understand or agree with.
Miri Regev and us
An inquisitive reader who visits the Library of Congress in Washington, which contains some 168 million titles, will have a hard time finding books written by members of the Maya civilization of Central America. This is not an accident. Nor is it because the Maya produced no books – in fact they did. Mayan script was part logographic (pictographic) and part alphabetic, and the Mayans wrote their manuscripts on paper made from tree bark. However, during the Spanish-Christian conquest, the conquistadores burned almost all the works of this conquered people. Bishop Diego de Landa, who ordered one of the largest mass burnings of Maya works, explained: “We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all.”
Nowadays, books are not burned in the West, but the ultra-conservative religious approach that such an act represents has in fact been adopted by the progressive left. Bishop de Landa and Mao Zedong ordered books to be burned because they were unwilling to have ideas contrary to theirs given expression in the cultural arena. Claiming possession of the truth is a form of blindness that both the left and the right have been plagued by over the years, from the Nazi Party to the Communist Party. The criteria are different today, but total belief in the rightness of one’s camp has remained the same. Disagreement with progressive positions is not perceived as a different opinion, but as a mistake at best and as primitive in the worst case.
Three years ago, a Mexican-American children’s and young adult writer, E.E. Charlton-Trujillo, halted publication of a book he’d authored following criticism that the slang he’d put in the mouth of a black character would be offensive to the African-American community. Early last year, another writer of works for young adult readers, Amelie Wen Zhao, pulled her book in the wake of accusations about its attitude toward slavery. Yet another writer, Kosoko Jackson, was compelled to stop distribution of a book aimed at young adults in the wake of allegations that he wasn’t sensitive enough to the suffering of Muslim Albanians (his story was set in Kosovo). In Canada, the two large film distribution companies that control 80 percent of the country’s screens refused to handle a film titled “Unplanned,” which tells the true story of the director of a planned parenthood clinic who switched sides and became an anti-abortion activist.
These scattered anecdotes have nothing to do with the thought police or any other Orwellian epithet directed against the right wing. They are an expression of a growing and worrisome trend. The amazing thing about this phenomenon is that its purveyors in Israel belong to the same group that rants and raves when Culture Minister Miri Regev assails films like “Foxtrot” or the TV series “Our Boys.” Regev’s attacks are narrow-minded and hypocritical, but how different are they from the dissing of a movie that is opposed to abortion? Can our confidence in the rightness of our cause really not withstand 50 minutes of comedy by Dave Chappelle? Alternatively, are the foundations on which our worldview are constructed so flimsy that a contentious joke will topple the entire structure?
Hall of mirrors
In April 1895, someone unusual took the witness stand in London’s criminal court. Neither a hardened criminal nor a scarred victim, he was in fact the most popular and esteemed playwright of his time. The witness was Oscar Wilde, the plaintiff in a libel trial that opened at earlier that month and rocked local intellectual circles. But the defendant’s attorney effectively turned the tables on Wilde, by proving that his client, the Marquess of Queensberry, had spoken the truth when he declared in writing and in public that Wilde had committed acts of sodomy in secret. The trial of Queensberry, the father of the playwright’s lover, became Wilde’s trial, in which it was alleged that he had seduced more than 20 young men, and that his novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” was studded with homoerotic allusions. When Wilde realized that his case was hopeless, he withdrew his suit. Shortly afterward he was prosecuted for being a homosexual, found guilty and sentenced to prison.
Wilde’s two trials are important not only as a reminder of how far Western culture has progressed regarding minority and LGBTQ rights over the past century, but also for his artistic approach, which shows no signs of having changed due to the legal proceedings against him and his prison term (though he stopped writing). Here is a person who was incarcerated for his sexual proclivities and whose work was termed in real time, in the courtroom, as a moral abomination. And what does he say about the ethical quality of his works? The very question is ridiculous in his view, as he writes in “Dorian Gray” five years before the trial: “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.”
In accordance with the principles of aestheticism, Wilde believed in “art for art’s sake” and contended that the commitment, not necessarily the result, be solely to beauty or to aesthetic pleasure. In other words: The reader does not own Oscar Wilde and he has no moral, ethical, social, political or cultural commitment to the reader. And what is the artistic approach of those who demand that art not be offensive, not be hurtful – that it be at least as enlightened as its audience? They seek neither aesthetic enjoyment nor intellectual interest, but a mirror. The selfie generation prefers art that reflects its values back to it and shows it how right it is, while disqualifying works that express a different position. In the political arena, this moral high ground can be useful and powerful; in the cultural arena, it’s suicide.
To conclude, it’s worth recalling a few of Wilde’s fine (though not necessarily moral) words: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”