rights vs. wrongs

three monkeys and a special one isolated on white backgroundThe thoughts so well expressed by Mike Cox in Freeing Free Speech once again set me thinking about my own attitudes to this thorny issue. It’s a difficult one for me; on the one hand I’m pretty much against censorship and all for free speech, on the other I despise those who sneer at ‘political correctness’ for no other reason than that it curtails their right to be offensive to people who are different from them.

I can see nothing offensive in nudity – male or female – and scoff at the double standards of news sites when subs (do they still have subs?) write screamers like [Insert name of celebrity] DARING TOPLESS PICS­ over photos that have black bars hiding the supposedly daring bits, but I am enraged by what amounts to the kiddy-porn that is the stock-in-trade of Toddlers and Tiaras. I support the right of people to make and buy pornographic films featuring supernaturally appendaged adults but would like to see life-sentences for those who exploit the powerless to produce it. And why in the name of Old Harry would any local or state government waste police time setting up sting operations to catch prostitutes and in the same breath resist efforts to regulate the industry? In my five years in the US I never ceased to be amazed and amused by the attitudes of the general public and the self-styled arbiters of public taste towards anything that may have been contrary to what appear to the outsider as ironclad laws of irrational national etiquette.

I’ll never forget Mike Williams on NBC warning people that a book under discussion “contained the word [Bleeeep] in the title” then showing the offending volume on camera to prove that the jacket did indeed bear the word “Hell”, but at least we hadn’t heard it from him and this dreadful breach of NBC’s standards – formulated I presumed to protect the delicate ears of a militant Christian minority – was the author’s. On PBS’s ‘Mystery Theatre’, female corpses on mortuary slabs in British detective shows had their nipples and pubic mounds blurred, but you could see their horrific wounds in HD. If that was still too offensive, why, just change the channel to watch ‘family entertainment’ featuring two-year-old girls in heavy make-up, feathers and pre-kindergarten versions of g-strings strutting and shimmying in ghastly parody of 1920s burlesque queens and presided over by a gay man who either has no conscience or is as thick as two short planks. And I’ll bet those same parents who push their baby girls on stage to strut and shake imaginary breasts no doubt gasp in horror when an artist exhibits pictures of her own naked children and want all paedophiles summarily castrated before they are executed.

One day in a supermarket, checking the price on a ‘leg’ of lamb caused me to undergo an involuntarily lapse into Australian dialect: “jesus-bloody-christ, forty bloody dollars!” (Australians pronounce that bloke’s name, and his dad’s, without capitals). A fat man in camo gear, face turning purple, turned on me and wagged a fist in my direction: “Y’all are goin’ to Hell sah. To suffah fire and damnation f’evah.” I replied that he might want to leave my vicinity in case “…the old feller’s aim with the lightning was a bit off,” then instantly regretted it as the devout gentlemen seemed about to suffer a stroke. Yet on teevee I could watch the preachers and politicians that many fat men and women who wear camo gear admire seemingly ejaculate in their designer underwear as they drooled over phrases such as ‘homoseksyooal child molesters’ and ‘godless A-rab Moozlms’.

And can you tell me why people in the US, well teevee ‘personalities’ anyway, use ‘ass’ and ‘butt’ and the even worse, ‘buns’ with gay [oops] abandon, yet rarely ‘boobs’ and never ‘tits’, and in a serious discussion about offensive language insist on alluding to the “N word”, usually with those stupid finger gestures that have replaced voice inflection? What’s worse is the opinion often expressed by people who should know better that it is all right if “they” use the “N word” to describe “themselves”. No it isn’t. No matter who utters it, nigger is horrible and is offensive – at least used in the way it is today – but if you want to dissuade people from such vile name calling, then coy euphemisms aren’t really going to help. And used like that, “they” is damn near as fraught with offensiveness as “N word”. Let’s call a spade a spade, but of course I won’t – or shouldn’t – in this context because I’m intelligent enough to know that there are people without my vocabulary or ability to read or interpret who might be offended by it and others who will think it funny and still others who would deliberately use that time-honored saw precisely because they know it will offend just about everybody, allowing them to shed crocodile tears over political correctness and its interference with their the right to free speech.

Sadly, Australia is once again following the Confused Right of US politics. Our new conservative government is led by Tony Abbott (yes, that’s his name), a Lycra-wearing, Catholic, ex-seminarian xenophobe who seems to have problems relating to women in anything other than a subservient role. It replaces one which, when led by a woman, was ranked fifth in the world by Forbes, apparently so deeply affecting the Mad Monk that he has appointed just one woman to his cabinet, as Foreign Minister, and she a simpering sycophant who has now been the token Exhibit A female in two conservative governments. Her name? Julie Bishop. It doesn’t get much better than that, now does it? The Abbott also recently appointed to his Priory of Fools a commissioner of human rights who has vowed to replace political correctness with the right to free speech, i.e. the right to belittle anyone not a member of the privileged, white, anglophile elite. His argument – and presumably his boss’s – is that public opprobrium will be a greater deterrent to racially offensive and inflammatory language than any legislation could be. Yeh? Pull the other leg, mate, it plays In the Sweet By and By.

Among the strongest ramparts against xenophobia, racism and countless other isms are a broad-based education, a broad mind and a well-worn passport. I was absolutely stunned by an audience’s collective gasp when as part of a public performance in Western Australia I told a Kentucky joke about ’coon hunters. Coon is a derogatory Australian word for an Aboriginal but the audience should have been sophisticated enough to have known that it has other meanings elsewhere. Not one of them would have thought twice about telling someone they had a caught a wog when referring to a cold, but would never in a million years use the same word to describe an immigrant from the Mediterranean. It seems that education is now so narrowly industry-focused that general knowledge is becoming a thing of the past, deemed unnecessary by the Lords of Finance and Industry. It is apparently deemed simpler to edit offensive words from Mark Twain novels than educate people about the era in which the books were written.

When we are told that a group of ignorant, bigoted, bible-thumping homophobes are allowed to obtain perverted sexual gratification by intruding on the grief of mourners and expressing joy at the death of their loved ones by exercising their rights to free speech, then perhaps the concept needs redefining. When the pursuit of happiness impinges on the rights of our fellow citizens to go about their lives in peace, then maybe we’re getting too much of a good thing.

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Frank Povah

Frank Povah

Arriving in the USA in late 2008, Frank Povah moved to Stamping Ground, Kentucky in mid 2009. Passionate about the written and spoken word and constantly bewildered by non-verbs and neo-nouns, Frank trained as a typesetter - though he has worked at many things - and later branched out into proofreading, writing and editing. For many years he has been copy editor, consultant and columnist with a prestigious Australian quarterly along with running his own editorial and typesetting business. His other interests are many and include traditional music, especially that of the south, folklore, natural history, and pigeons.