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June 12, 2009

You Can't Say That: A Partial Defense of Letterman/Playboy

Apparently, free speech is so over when the masses rule the media: "It's only OK if I think it's funny. It's only OK if it fits my politics. It's only OK if I say it is." I wish Playboy hadn't pulled it. Censoring the piece doesn't make it any less real, any less politically incorrect, any less true. Attempting to police human nature is the real joke here.

- Susannah Breslin

It's rare for such a brief quote to contain so many juicy ideas just waiting to be untangled. To my mind there's a fair amount of confusion expressed here, though a few lines seem awesomely intelligent if for no other reason than that they validate my extraordinarily insightful reasoning processes.

Let's take it line by line:

Apparently, free speech is so over when the masses rule the media: "It's only OK if I think it's funny. It's only OK if it fits my politics. It's only OK if I say it is."

The first part of this statement is just bizarre. Yet variants of the old slippery slope argument lie thick upon the ground these days (particularly on the InterTubes). First, let's deal with the disturbing whiff of a censorship 'plaint. It isn't censorship when a public figure says something stupid and private citizens (as opposed to government) become so offended that they push back or decide to take their money elsewhere. Freedom of speech is not threatened because no one was prevented from hearing the offending sentiment. They heard it. Now it's their turn to talk back.

That the speaker or his employers may find this responsive speech unpleasant to listen to and voluntarily self-censor in the future, so as not to provoke more unpleasant reactions, does not present a bar to free expression. In this case Playboy can continue to publish articles that offend large numbers of people. No one's stopping them. What they cannot do is dictate the reaction of the general public, nor expect to be rewarded for having pissed people off.

On the part about the masses ruling the media: well of course they do. They're providing the revenue stream which keeps the media in business. Contrary to their frequent attempts to remind us how indebted we are to them for deigning to inform and entertain us, the media do not provide these services gratis. Nor do they haul tuckus to work each day through rush hour traffic out of a high minded desire to ram the manparts of FreeSpeechdom or afflict the comfortable. That's just what they tell themselves when they've had a lousy day at work. "It's all worth it, because without us the universe would be taken over by bitter, gun clinging wingnuts and the snake handling cretins who run FoxNews."

No, the media are in business to turn a profit. That's tough to do if you expect people to throw wads of filthy lucre your way for the privilege of having their sensibilities outraged. The huddled masses who pay his salary aren't terribly interested in Keith Olbermann's Edgar R. Murrow fantasies. They expect articulate, spittle flecked rants that neatly confirm their pre-existing biases.

But I agree with the second part of that statement: "It's only OK if I think it's funny. It's only OK if it fits my politics. It's only OK if I say it is." I've been beating this particular dead horse like a rented mule lately. We humans are fickle. And loyal. And fiercely partisan at times. We erupt in fury when The Other disrespect Sarah Palin but see nothing odd in searching for nude photos of a married female Governor online or idly commenting that she's one hell of a MILF and we'd give our left hand for an hour with her in a dark room. Of course we'd still respect her in the morning, because after all we're conservatives and unlike the other side, we have principles.

The thing is, political differences and human foibles aside, most of us share an elemental sense of fairness. That's why the Playboy article was an equal opportunity offender for the left and the right. No matter where you sit, two things were pretty obvious.

1. The hate-f*** reference was creepy and inappropriate. It's the conflation of anger and sex that disturbs.

2. Though modern culture relentlessly sexualizes everything from kindergarteners to grandmothers, none of the Playboy women did anything to invite the demeaning treatment that was meted out to them (except dare to offer their opinions for public consumption). We can rationalize talking about someone else wife or daughter like a piece of meat because after all, she's getting paid and presumably enjoys being looked at and talked about in the altogether. She offers, and we are free to accept what is offered or politely decline. But publicly conscripting women who never consented to such treatment into our imaginary YouPorn universe seems like a particularly obscene back door draft (pun fully intended).

So, should Playboy have pulled the article? Should Letterman be fired and banished to an airless cell in Gitmo so the frilly panties of feminist outrage can be repeatedly pulled over his screaming maw?

I'm not sure. Or more accurately, I think the decision should be up to Playboy enterprises and CBS. Like Jeff Goldstein, I don't necessarily see this public morality play as a bad thing:

... so while it may have been unfunny to those with certain sensibilities, the only “justification” necessary is that someone thought it funny enough to make public, and we (thankfully) still have the right to make those kinds of decisions ourselves.

This is what is great about America - we have the right to offend others, the right to choose to exercise self-restraint and consideration, and the right to erupt in volcanic explosions of outrage when one of our sacred oxen is gored. What we're being offered is the opportunity to think - to examine our values and priorities, and to remember that even in this cynical age there's still considerable common ground between the right and left.

How far we've come. When I was a child Letterman's remark would have been censored out long before we ever heard it. There are times when I think the world would be a better place if we weren't so darned resistant to the notion of limits and standards of decency. But on the other hand, sometimes it takes someone stepping outside the boundaries of common decency and courtesy to remind us that it's time for our annual gut check.

On to the last sentiment in our short quote:

Censoring the piece doesn't make it any less real, any less politically incorrect, any less true. Attempting to police human nature is the real joke here.

I hear this argument a lot online too. "You can't legislate morality" (never mind that no laws are involved in either of these stories). "Men/women are wired that way - there's no point in trying to change them." (Hoo boy - toddlers are wired to grab toys and food from each other and pitch temper tantrums too. Fortunately, at least some of their parents understand this behavior is unlikely to promote social harmony if allowed to continue unchecked.) We are constantly fighting a battle between our basic instincts and higher brain functions like morality and reason. Partly as a result of technology and the affluence it brings with it, many of us have forgotten that we can't really go it alone.

We are part of a tightly interconnected social matrix which provides most of our basic needs with less effort and more security than at any other time in history, but the comforting haze of affluence lulls us into a false sense of independence. The Internet doesn't help. Online we regularly do things that in real life would earn us a horsewhipping or a punch in the mouth. And so we forget that our narrow view of the universe isn't the only one; that the technology which dutifully serves up our every whim also connects us to others in a way that makes isolationist fantasies (whether played out on a national or individual scale) more than just quaintly antiquated. A lowly beer commercial becomes a cultural bellwether that further blurs the swiftly eroding line between public and private behavior and makes it harder to argue that any man is an island:

The ad, which quietly appeared in February as part of a viral campaign, has attracted little notice thus far, but because it comes from a highly respected American brand, it seems to mark some kind of cultural tipping point, where pornography has soaked so far into the fabric of mainstream culture that it's no longer seen as a stain. The phenomenon, known as porn creep, is also evident in ads from such companies as American Apparel, Carl's Jr. and Quiznos.

To some, it's funny. I'll admit that I laughed in parts. But it's also (as with our ill fated discussion on prostitution last week) a phenomenon that men and women are likely to see through the prism of their respective experiences. Men (and I've read hundreds of comments on the ad) almost invariably think it's hilarious. They laugh at the Bud buyer's embarrassment and think, "Man, I've been there". And embarrassment is funny - the stuff of thousands of skits and movies and ads that have gone before. But I couldn't help noticing the woman's body language. I wonder how many guys would even see it? Watch the ad and note how she draws into herself and crosses her arms protectively as she realizes she's sandwiched in between two guys who obviously like porn a lot.

Part of what makes the commercial funny is that even in today's anything goes culture, the buyer is ashamed and embarrassed. What made part of it unfunny is that the other guy sees nothing wrong with going on and on about what would normally be a pretty private subject in mixed company. Like Time, I find the increasing mainstreaming of porn disturbing because I don't relish the thought of explaining graphic or perverse sexual references to my grandson or my mother. I'm not happy about our growing need to overshare, to be tethered 24/7 by cell phones and wireless access and then claim we act in a vacuum and therefore need accept no limits on our personal conduct from the rest of society:

Sure, I could settle for a routine in which only traditional social skills are required, but where's the fun in that? I long ago mastered not talking with my mouth full and placing a napkin in my lap, and still felt the world needed people like me--pioneers of electronic propriety--to make tough choices. Is my personal hygiene regimen or lack thereof fit for public consumption? Probably not. What about a pictorial on the proper position for a keg stand? Not a good idea, regardless of my prowess. Does my social circle need to know that the sour cream at Chipotle tastes "a little off"? Tough call. Could be a public health issue.

It's a daily game of public Frogger, hopping frantically to avoid being crushed under the weight of your own narcissism, banality, and plain old stupidity. Just as it took Alexander Graham Bell a couple of tries on the telephone to realize that "Hoy! Hoy!" simply wasn't going to work as the standard greeting, so it took a brave South African man to discover that calling your boss a "serial masturbator" on Facebook will get you fired. There are thousands oversharing online as I write, paying the price with a gradual erosion of their dignity, so you don't have to.

Ironically, the antidote I've found for my own tendency to overshare online is more sharing online. Everything on my Facebook and Twitter pages is openly available. It's amazing how reasonably you act when everyone you know (and many you don't) is watching you.

I make a conscious decision to broadcast my life every day, and I accept the consequences. In a way it's a quintessentially conservative formula: The extent to which you take personal responsibility for your actions dictates the risks and benefits of your online existence.

As with the debate on blogospheric anonymity/pseudonymity, I think the freedom of the Internet poses the ultimate character test. It's the virtual answer to that old question: would you do this if no one was looking? The problem, of course, is that someone is looking and online we need answer only to our own sense of integrity. Some of us will self-regulate.

The question is, how does an increasingly hetergeneous society handle those who won't self-regulate - who, indeed, refuse to entertain the idea that there are or ought to be any limits on their behavior? The answer, I think, lies in what we've just seen with Letterman and Playboy: outrage and responsive speech. We can do and say what we want.

What we absolutely cannot do is prevent others from responding, and at least at present there would seem to be some issues on which the right and left still loosely agree.

It's a comforting thought, just as it comforts me that people can choose to pay the price if they're willing to swim against the tide of societal opprobrium. The interesting question for the future will be whether any standards - or any society - can survive the erosion of law, morality, and authority.

It will be interesting to find out, no?

Posted by Cassandra at June 12, 2009 06:10 AM

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Good contact, excellent follow through, over the fence, bang, zoom - another piece to the moon Alice... er, Cass!

"It isn't censorship when a public figure says something stupid and private citizens (as opposed to government) become so offended that they push back or decide to take their money elsewhere."
<snark> Darned that antiquated Constitution/BilloRights. Were it to be treated as a living document and thoroughly diddled from the Bench, one could rest secure in the knowledge of being freed from any backlash, public or private. Especially if said yapage were to be directed towards gub'ment functionaries and widgetry.

Surely such a backlash constitutes some variant of a hate crime or felonious thought crime.

Fortunately I WON! will have ample opportunity to not only reshape/apologize for the image of the United States, but also to insure that the interpretations of the laws of the land are taken in directions never intended or foreseen by the Founders and Framers.

Letterman for EEOC Czar and Jerry Springer for SCOTUS! </snark>

Posted by: The-Manchurian-bubba_hun at June 12, 2009 11:12 AM

Censorship has to do with OPSEC. Not wanting to listen to spittle-flecked rants filled with invenctive, four letter words, filthy jokes and personal attacks is a matter of taste. Iffen the public don wanna hear it, they ain't buyin' it, and if they do hear it and are offended by the bad taste displayed, they can certainly say so.

We used to call it 'boundaries of good taste.'

Posted by: Cricket at June 12, 2009 11:23 AM

I am reminded of The Dixie Chicks screaming "CENSORSHIP" when radio stations refused to air their music after they badmouthed the President in Great Britain. "That work you keep using... I do no think it means what you think it means."

Freedom of Speech is NOT Freedom from Consequences or Freedom from Criticism. You may say whatever unpopular, rude, crude, or vile thing you want. But when your advertisers decide they'll have nothing to do with you afterward, that's them exercising their Freedom of Association. They don't HAVE to spend their money keeping you in business. If they (or their consumers) are offended by what you said, tough. That's the CONSEQUENCE of your actions.

I really think we need to have remedial classes on Freedom.

Posted by: MikeD at June 12, 2009 11:31 AM

Or civics :p

That's pretty much the common thread that runs through every single thing I get my pantyhose in a wad about.

I completely accept that people can say what they want - I think that's a good thing. But I am of the opinion that freedom ought to be used responsibly and with some awareness of how others are impacted so I also think it's OK for people to object to speech they don't like. And I've done so! :)

And people are free not to like what I say. What I tend to have issues with is when conservatives adopt the "you have no right to criticize me" thing.

Ummmm... if you act in private and I'm not affected by your choices, I won't have anything to criticize or comment upon, will I? But if you speak or act in a public venue, you don't have any 'right to privacy', nor any right to freedom from opinions you don't share. I try to be civil and not call people names, but simple disagreement - even when strongly expressed - isn't fatal :p

There's something kind of weird about bloggers who solicit traffic and then get bent out of shape when people argue with them. We're all human, so I understand the annoyance factor. But I don't get the "how dare you!!!!" thing at all.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 12, 2009 11:38 AM

Here we have another example of the fact that you're a lady and I'm not. I'm raunchy, I'm socially unacceptable, and I laughed at that commercial until I cried, then invited my husband to come in and laugh at it equally hard the second time through. Does that mean I'm callous to the discomfort the old high-school girlfriend was in? It must, in a way. In her place, if the conversation had turned to something that offended me, I'd have spoken up in a way that probably would have driven the two guys from the room, or I'd have walked away. I'm just not a very nice girl.

This is something I think about often: my philosophical sympathies are with you, but my nature is not, and I don't disapprove of my nature though I sometimes regret its consequences.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 12, 2009 11:44 AM

But you at least make the decision and know that you can get into hot water. What I am seeing here is a defense of bad taste because of bias, and not accepting the consquences of that behavior.

IOW, you know if you get into trouble, you have no one to blame but you, and you accept that.
Very different from liberals who have to be shielded from the consequences of their behavior and bad choices.

Posted by: Cricket at June 12, 2009 12:02 PM

Well, I did laugh, too :)

And it doesn't bother me a bit if you think it's funny, or don't see the same things I did in the ad - after all, different people bring different experiences to the table.

I've always been comfortable around guys, even when sometimes they are being, well, guys. But they've never tended to treat me in a way that made me uncomfortable either. I don't mind (for instance) discussing things I don't care for. We'd never get along with anyone else if we were all that quick to take offense. It's just that having seen how quickly things can degenerate with people and also having had friends who find being in an all male environment very intimidating, I may draw the line in a different place.

In college, I was treated very well even if I was the only girl in a room full of drunk guys. But I had friends who went the same places I did and were less fortunate. I am not sure why that happened, but although I've gotten frustrated with other women at times for not being willing to stand up for themselves, still I can see that when things go South between two people it's generally not all one person's fault. They react to each other's behavior - sort of like when a dog barks at you and instead of standing still you run away. Of course he chases you.

I think that in general I probably draw a firmer line between public and private behavior. Maybe that's b/c I'm from the East Coast and the South (I think of Texas as more the West, and things are different out West). So I had rules hammered into me as a kid.

re: being raunchy. Obviously you haven't talked to me in person :p I don't see your reaction as callous and I agree with you that if I was that uncomfortable I probably would have said something like, "Hey guys, get a room willya" :p I tend to try and use humor to defuse uncomfortable situations.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 12, 2009 12:08 PM

I don't think anyone is saying he doesn't have the right to say it - but I don't think there's any argument that it's not offensive and maybe he made a 'mistake' in that it was the 14 yr old not the 18 yr old but like Anne Coulter said these mistakes always seem to happen in the same direction. And calling her Mom slutty looking certainly wasn't any mistake. Plus I remember all those jokes about Al Gore's drug addict son and Michael Kennedy who really was a child molestor. But like.. that's not important.

Posted by: Bandit at June 12, 2009 12:49 PM

Susannah Breslin, one of the current litter of apologists for all things smutty, is apparently too young to remember the seminal film, A Face In The Crowd. In the 1957 production a popular television entertainer, Lonesome Rhodes, allows the power of his bully pulpit over-stimulate his already throbbing ego. His disdain and contempt for the people who watch his show are eventually stripped away and Rhodes learns the hard lesson that all those "little people" are really the folks in the dominant position. As always, the freedom to speak freely includes an inherent ethical and moral responsibility. Today's masses rule the media as they have always done, and when a performer, no matter how popular or powerful, insists on continuing to commit a social miscreantation of such proportions, the audience verbally flagellates that person onto the carpet. (Better get some virtual knee pads Dave!) Letterman and his handlers were wrong to trivialize the idea of statutory rape and they're about to learn how wrong. No amount of rationalizing by Letterman or Breslin is going to make such "humor" okay with Dave's former audience.

Posted by: Kaffir at June 12, 2009 12:54 PM

I doubt it's the Texas connection, though it's possible. Whether it's because I was raised without a mother, or something inherent about myself, I've been a tomboy since I can remember. Though I'm as heterosexual as you can get, much of the gender identification that most women seem to take for granted is an inky black mystery to me, and has been since earliest childhood. I accept that many (if not most) women have other modes of being, and I can admire them for it and be curious about it, but I could no more enter into that mode than fly to the moon.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 12, 2009 01:09 PM

"Freedom of Speech is NOT Freedom from Consequences or Freedom from Criticism."

Mind if I make a bumpersticker out of that, Mike?

Tex, you and I need to meet and have a drink (sit on your fingers, Cass and Carrie) or three. Heh. From what I've garnered from your comments and given where I live, I'd say that the Arizona/New Mexico state line would be fairly equidistant for both of us.

Also, we'd be far enough away from each our homes to not be recognized in the local paper.

Posted by: DL Sly at June 12, 2009 01:09 PM

My reaction to Letterman's joke was that if I saw him near a high school I'd call the cops. Seriously, what normal 62 year old man sees teenage girls in a sexual manner?

The only thing I got out of it was the image of Letterman in a trenchcoat with a pocket full of candy.

Posted by: Allen at June 12, 2009 01:52 PM

DL -- yer on! Or you would be, except that since semi-retiring and escaping to the boonies, I can almost never be induced to travel anywhere. But come visit us here, and we'll get together with some of the other pyros on the fire department and blow some stuff up while under the influence. Cassandra is welcome to give you my email address if you ask her.

As for the press coverage, a lady should be in the news only twice: upon her marriage and upon her death.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 12, 2009 03:14 PM

Mind if I make a bumpersticker out of that, Mike?

I'd be honored ma'am.

Posted by: MikeD at June 12, 2009 03:21 PM

*looks around corner, under stool, under carpet [gotta sweep under there someday] scoots pile of sticks-that-used-to-be-a-stool to the side [Oh! One of Mr. DeBille's fiddly-bits] pushes pile under carpet*

Um....Mike, who you talkin' to?

"...a lady should be in the news only twice..."

Heh, I blasted that *curve* over the centerfield fence years ago....

Posted by: DL Sly at June 12, 2009 04:25 PM

> where pornography has soaked so far into the fabric of mainstream culture that it's no longer seen as a stain.

This, from the Time article, is just flat-out STUPID.

The entire POINT of the bit is the fact that the poor schnook gets basically outed on his own little personal deviancy.

It doesn't remove the "stain", it pokes fun at someone's exposure on it.

This is no different at its heart than Uncle Milty in a dress.

As usual, Time's reporters and editors both demonstrate themselves to be lifelong sufferers of Cranio-Rectal Insertion Syndrome (CRIS).

Posted by: OBloodyhell at June 15, 2009 07:10 AM

One can see that ad two ways, OBH: as an ad in which the fact that a guy is buying a mag that is under the counter b/c it's far more explicit than Playboy or Penthouse (both of which have themselves become far more explicit over the years) leads to embarrassment.

Or you can see it as an ad that mocks his embarrassment and the "silly" - and very exaggerated - attempts of those around him to make him feel guilty about doing something that, as the guy behind him points out at great length "everyone does" - something he should not be embarrassed about.

More than that, I'm not going to say. Expressing what I think on any of these subjects has never led to anything good.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 15, 2009 07:33 AM