I was thinking, a bit, about the subject of offending others. It's come into focus recently by way of both Scott Walters's thoughts about how how some playwrights seem to take pride in "shaking the audience up" and also by way of the recent international discussion of "offensive" cartoons that have brought about (some say) violence.
The fact is, the entire negotiation between the society and its artists regarding what is too far, what is too much, what is acceptable to show and what is not... this is entirely medieval and overwhemlingly purposeless. The questions we ask ourselves should not be about what should be expressed, but the validity of the ideas that are expressed.
The term "offensive" is essentially one that is intended to restrict and qualify expression. Insofar as artists and media consider the offense or lack thereof of their work, they are accepting the low ground in Custer-style battle. Any argument that speaks to the relative offensiveness of a piece of art, be it cartoon or play, is making an argument for censorship.
Whenever one discusses what has offended them, the question of whether the offending phrase should have been printed or uttered is ridiculous. All ignorant, terrifyingly stupid or profane ideas should be given as much sunlight as possible. Otherwise, we are not engaging with the worst of ourselves, and that sort of denial will only allow ignorance to pervade and fester.
When an individual professes a racist, sexist or homophobic view...I assert that this is valuable and essential to free debate and discussion. How can one truly know that they expressly disagree with one side if they do not hear it? If they cannot challenge it?
Simply put, all language, all sentiment, all ideas, must be allowed open airing and freedom. Otherwise, no true discussion is possible.
The moment we retract statements, shrink from offense, or hide the ugliness of the world from our eyes and the eyes of those we hope to inform, is the moment we surrender true debate. And it is in the trenches of debate that we can wrestle out fact.
Two different viewpoints are not, automatically, equal. There is, more often than not, a correct side. One based on fact and faith and morality, that trumps the side that is false. We have fallen into a trap, lately, of allowing one side to simply be someone else's point-of-view, based on some experience, and all views (especially political) are treated as equal sides. As two sides of the same coin.
But the arguments for and against segregation, abortion rights, assisted suicide, war, foreign aid, religious extremism, bigotry and violence are not equal. There are correct sides, based on fact and values and ethics, that can only come to light if both sides, or as many sides as possible, are put into the public arena and scrutinized for fact and validity.
By not showing the offending cartoons from Denmark, for example, newspapers are treating their audience as children and the religious views of Muslim extremist with too much deference. By not treating writers who express views we disagree with (life is meaningless and terrible and sad might be one) as artists who should be given respect, we make art we do agree with much less valuable.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.