Thursday, July 08, 1999

Obscenity: A Revision

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

My dictionary defines the word obscene as "1. offensive to one's feelings, or to prevailing notions, of modesty and decency. 2. disgusting; repulsive."

I've always thought the movie rating system was all wrong. Blood is PG, and skin (short of pornography) is R? If we had our values right, it would be the other way around. (Although, it is true: how often in any movie is a married couple seen having sex? It's like sex stops after marriage. Well, there is the Cruise/Kidman movie coming out -- but there it is the actor and actress who are married; I have no idea about the characters. But I digress.)

For what is the true obscenity in our midst? Is it love and intimacy, of which, we remember, sex at its most special is sometimes an expression, and at in its least cheapened depiction can indeed come through in art? Or is it blood and guts and gore, violence which even in its highest depiction has little potential for redemption?

Let me try to be clearer: between blood and skin, one is almost inherently base, the other only in how it is presented. It is not cheap, or dirty, or filthy, or even obscene, in and of itself. Even in art.

So I think the rating system should be revised. That some films with strong sexual content should be rated PG. If the values of intimacy and closeness and relationships come across. And that all of the violent, gory, shoot-em up shockers should be Restricted viewing. I just have a different sense than the censors or the Supreme Court of what I think is obscene.

The other day, my favorite radio program was obscene.  I was listening to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" (aka "No Things Resolved") when one of the hosts interviewed Matt Hale. 

WARNING: perhaps those of you who agree with my definition should read no further. For I am going to repeat some of what Matt Hale said. Which means that what follows is going to be obscene.

Matt Hale is the leader of a white supremacist group (they call themselves a church, but apparently reject Christianity since, after all, its founder was a Jew) which preaches that different races are as far apart as different species of animals. This is almost all I heard of the interview: that he believes that whites are one race, that Jews another, blacks another, Asians ("mud people"???) another, and that just as an ant has no concern for a moth, which has no concern for a rat, so, too, the races should be completely segregated, separated, and unconcerned with one another.

Never mind the failure to grasp the concept of an interdependent ecosystem. (And never mind that I guess I thought I was a white guy.) Matt Hale is the leader who inspired Benjamin Nathaniel Smith to go out and shoot at Jews and blacks and Asians. Whose group's leaflets were found on cars in synagogues in Sacramento (which does not automatically link him to the arson attacks there, but it might).

At other times, I have written about strong language, and its affect on action. (See "Tinky Winky and Us," for one example.) Some readers have objected: I am confusing words with acts, that just because someone expresses disdain or demeaning thoughts about one whole group does not mean they are the cause of someone else actually attacking that group.

The objection is noted. And rejected. With an amendment. There is, perhaps, a difference between guilt and responsibility. And where free speech is and should be allowed, only the one who pulled the trigger, who tossed the match, who built the bomb, who strung up the gay man on the fence or dragged the black man to death on the back of the car is actually guilty. But there are other arenas of morality besides actual guilt.

Yes, I believe in free speech, and it is a truism that the first amendment by definition protects speech we find offensive -- perhaps even obscene -- for speech we agree with needs little protection.

But there is a category of incitement that goes beyond speech, and touches on action. Just as you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, I wonder about those who pave the path, who fan the flames of hate, who know even while smiling their despicable smiles and secretly thanking the media for giving their message more exposure that their protestations of nonviolence are hollow, empty lies, that they rejoice indeed when one of their own strikes out in physical attacks -- and the leaders themselves are wrapped in cozy security. Their goal of attacking others is accomplished, someone else sits in jail, they carry on, and mock the world as they enjoy the protections of freedoms they themselves don't believe should ever have been extended to anyone other than themselves.

When we engage in the rhetoric of hate, of demeaning speech, I believe that we do bear partial responsibility for what flows from our words. Even if we are not guilty in the same way as the one we might inspire to do something we ourselves have not done.

So I am listening to "All Things Considered" the other day. I hear this thug spout his racist filth and I want to throw up. What he is saying: to me it's obscene. It's evil. How can "they" even put that on the air?  Where was the censor when we needed one?

I'll tell you where the censor was. He was driving the car.  I was alone in the car. No kids in the back seat. No one else to hear who might be influenced in ways I would not want. I reached out my hand... and I turned the volume up.

Because this obscenity is not art. It is real. It is dangerous. It is out there. Not broadcasting it won't make it go away. So the next question is: what will?