In the course of pondering the correct response to internet trolls, my law school classmate David French poses an interesting question — "isn't there a middle ground between porn and prude?" Or, as I'd put it — is there a middle ground between being in favor of censoring sex-related expression, on the one hand, and being completely uncritical about public depictions of sex on the other? Is there, for want of a better word, a "normal?"
David — who has unimpeachable free-speech credentials — comes to this question courtesy of his wife, Nancy, who was quoted in a newspaper article about encountering a rather vivid sex-related display while leading her kids through a bookstore. Many people treated her as if she had expressed some Victorian-era sentiment that sex ought to go unmentioned in public at all, that children should be shielded from all mention of it, and that any depiction of homosexuality is particularly offensive. Like so:
Heterosexist swine. And what harm comes from your kid knowing that sex exists at a young age. It is a beautiful thing created by God, and this Victorian attempt to cover it up is exactly what has created our hyper-sexualized culture.
And so on, in that vein.
I think David has the right of it — there must be a middle ground between saying "that ought not be allowed" and "people ought to feel free to criticize gratuitous, or gratuitously promoted, sexual expression." This is at the heart of one of my favorite themes here at Popehat — criticism is not censorship. As a parent, like David and Nancy, I am frequently appalled by sexual content in culture — not because it is sexual, but because it is relentlessly commercialized sexuality. The culture sexualizes children at a younger and younger age — for instance, by encouraging girls to dress skanky earlier and earlier — because it makes money for the skankifiers. It's not a celebration of the beauty of human sexuality — it's a celebration of commerce. I think that both commerce and human sexuality are swell, but I reserve the right to argue that perhaps a bookstore ought to make more responsible marketing decisions than placing soft-core porn displays in the paths of children. It's the difference between thinking that (1) the government ought not prohibit clothiers from selling sweatpants to tween girls with "juicy" written across the ass, but (2) if anyone sells that to my nine-year-old daughter, I will be contemplating visiting them with a cheese grater, a lemon, and some sea salt.
We all have sensibilities, and I think it is not inherently prudish — not inherently censorious — to engage in dialogue about those sensibilities. But here's the dilemma: sensibilities are held — tightly, and in a manner hostile to criticism or question — by people. Some of those people are silly and irrational, particularly when you put them in groups.
As a result, we're always going to be struggling to find "normal," walking the razor's edge between people who denounce us if we criticize expression, and people who seek to squelch speech in foolish and unprincipled ways because of their own sensibilities or because of what they assume about the sensibilities of others. Nancy's detractors are an example of the first category; for the latter category, consider the case of Jennifer Dinoia. Ms. Dinoia, the spouse of a Foreign Service officer, wrote a blog featured on a State Department-sanctioned website. The State Department features such blogs because they allow a network of mutual support for Foreign Service families and provide a glimpse of the life for aspirants to the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, the State Department removed Ms. Dinoia's blog when she dropped the n-word. No, not that ugly one. I mean "nipple." Ms. Dinoia, in the course of describing how she battled breast cancer and endured treatment while her husband was on assignment in Iraq, dropped that word. Apparently on at least one occasion she used the n-word without the level of clinical detachment that some State Department funky thought was appropriate. Maybe it was this:
In an April 26 post headlined “I have a new kind of cozy,” Dinoia, who lives in Annandale, described the “nipple cozy,” part of her post-surgery recovery regimen.
“I have the new style (close your eyes if you fear TMI…this is one of those posts), er, nipple cozy, if you will,” she wrote. For levity, she posted two images of tea cozies she pulled from the Internet.
Quoth the funky whose sensibilities were upset (or, perhaps, who believed the sensibilities of others would be upset):
“Hopefully, you can understand that some topics covered in your blog are very personal in nature, e.g. nipple cozies,” the employee wrote, “and wouldn’t necessarily resonate with the majority of potential candidates who are interested in learning about the FS [Foreign Service] life overseas.”
The State Department, to its credit, has repositioned itself and restored Ms. Dinoia's blog. Cooler heads will often prevail over the temporary gusts of sensibilities. But the case illustrates the dilemma: I want to encourage David and Nancy to speak their mind as parents and citizens, on the one hand, without encouraging the inane culture of offense embodied in the State Department's initial response to the word "nipple."
Regrettably, there are no simple answers about sex or speech.
[By the way, the nipple story comes courtesy of Donna, another classmate — this time from high school — a talented writer with her own blog about family life in the Foreign Service, which I have mentioned before.]