by Lynn Mandaville
For more than a week now I’ve been deeply pondering the storm around Kathy Griffin’s symbolic bloody beheading of our president. Boy, it sure got our national attention, didn’t it? Reactions were all over the place, from shock and horror to delight and glee, in responses both negative and positive.
In some parts of the world such an expression could have got Griffin herself beheaded, but here, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it is Griffin’s right.
Now that I’ve got that very important fact out of the way, let’s talk about the real issue involved in this controversy — appropriateness. We all know the old analogy that free speech doesn’t extend to someone shouting fire in a crowded theater. But we’re not talking about free speech that endangers the lives of innocent people. We’re in a grayer area here, where people are using personal expression to vent their thoughts and feeling about current events.
Political cartoonists have long been admired for their ability to distill an idea down to a single image and a few select words. It is an acceptable form of social and artistic expression. Political humorists are also having a heyday as they use satire to engage citizens in social discourse. Also, by and large, an acceptable form of artistic expression.
But two current examples of pushing the envelope of appropriateness keep swirling — Stephen Colbert’s “cock holster” remark, and Griffin’s beheaded president — along with a reprise of Trump’s greatest hit “grab ’em by the pussy.” And. I’m. Sick. And. Tired. Of people in general trying to justify all three.
What all these outbursts of expression have in common is their being rooted in raw, base emotion. When Trump made his gross, misogynistic remark about women, he was speaking from a deep-seated disdain for women. When Colbert made his overly coarse reference to Trump’s mouth it was from a poorly controlled anger over what Colbert considered rude behavior toward colleague John Dickerson. And when Griffin displayed the bloody effigy, it was from her profound hatred and frustration toward the president.
None of these people engaged a filter before exercising his or her free speech, thus they all expressed their thoughts in inappropriate manners.
When I was a young girl, Ma said that if I couldn’t say something nice about someone I shouldn’t say anything at all. That is universally good advice for children who are learning social graces. For adults it’s trickier. For adults, similar advice comes in the form of “don’t say anything you’d be embarrassed for your mother to hear.” Again, good advice, but a bit simplistic for the political arena.
Politics is ugly, thus it seems natural to respond with ugly. But we should gear our responses to it far above the visceral level. Men, are there women in your lives — wives, sisters, mothers, daughters —whom you cherish? How would you feel toward anyone who denigrated them with language as debasing as that used by Trump, in a locker room or otherwise? Parents, how would you explain to your child any implied violence toward you by someone who disagreed with you, justified or not? People in general, why would you resort to using vulgar sexual terminology when an intellectually agile mind could come up with something far more cutting? And appropriate!
Shakespeare wrote “what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason?” We are human beings. We are noble in reason. We can figure out what is an appropriate response to something that gnaws at us on a gut level. We can pause before reacting to think things through. Regardless of whom one hates, there is a responsibility to be appropriate when one exercises his or her free speech.
The transgressors of appropriateness should be taken to task. Appropriately.