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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Free Speech For Me...But Not For Thee?

My class at Ryerson University in Toronto dealt with the issue of how much free speech can be tolerated in this hurly burly media environment.

It was a lively class (they are a lively bunch of 2nd year students) and very polite and civil to one another. But it occurred to me that the coarsening of our culture has had an impact.

There was not much that these 20 year olds hadn't been exposed to through the various media "opportunities." We tried to think of something that still has the power to REALLY shock. If we did have something in mind, we didn't dare mention it aloud.

I found George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" and we watched that together (all Ryerson classrooms are internet accessible).

I hadn't seen it in a while and it was as amusing as I remembered it, but not as shocking as it once was. The students found it funny for a while, but I sensed that after it had run for its entire 10 minutes, they were bored.

We tried to imagine a scenario where something would still be "shocking" to an audience. Not much occurred to us, and I suppose that's a sign that our culture has matured, in a way.

We talked as well about how free speech has evolved over the years: I mentioned the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 60s, Lenny Bruce (is Sarah Silverman this generation's version?), Paul Krassner's "satire" involving JFK and LBJ from The Realist in 1967 (I'm still shocked by that one). It was considered so vile that when reprinted in the McGill University newspaper, the McGill Daily, the Montreal police confiscated every copy and the editor, John Fekete - now a distinguished professor, was censured by the McGill administration.

More recently, the Mohammed cartoons have caused more serious ructions. Many people have died in the riots that followed the publishing of the cartoons. But in our somewhat blase Western culture, the ability to shock seems to have been seriously diminished.

We also talked about the media's instinct to self-censor. Witness Joe Scarborough's slip on MSNBC the other morning when he quoted Rahm Emanuel's propensity for profanity and left slip the f-word. Much on air embarrassment, but not much shame.

At the end of the class, there was consensus that we have all become so respectful of one another's sensibilities, that in the North American mainstream media we seems have put politeness above all else. One young woman in the class argued that there must be times when the media must shock. But few in the class came to her defense.

Is the long struggle for freedom of speech ending not with a bang, but with a whimper? In the end, I and my Ryerson class were at a loss to see where that struggle might yet take us.


  1. What about talk show host Michael Savage's recent comments about autism? That seemed to shock people.

  2. It did and Michael Savage wasn't alone on that issue. More bizarre is Rush Limbaugh's description of our present economic woes as the "Obama recession." Now that's shocking. Or perhaps just an indication of how where the Republican attack machine will be going.

  3. Free speech is more pervasive than ever, at least from my vantage point.
    And I was there when that Realist article came out, and still have it.
    I can point to blogs and Howard Stern as clear examples of a new age in freedom of expressions and just how many ideas are now on the table.