What would you ban?

Book burningI’m gonna go a little bit out on a limb and ask about taboos with a little compare and contrast. And no, even though I start this out with an example about gun control, the point isn’t about that. It’s about taboo and how that might apply to other rights, their expression, and the rationale for that expression.

There’s a line of thinking that goes, “just because you have a right doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to express it to the extreme and cling to those extremes.” I think it’s where the left’s pejorative “gun fetishists” springs from. There may even be a hint of truth in it. Is it possible some folks own firearms and geek out on them the same way others geek out on cars, sports, or a million different hobbies? That they do it, “just because I can and *you* can’t stop me?” Never mind the whether it lacks in decorum. There may even be a bit of rockstar defiance in both the act and in the display. Is that inherently wrong?

The message I get from the sorts of folks that lob “gun fetishists” around like a cute and clever verbal grenade (high five!) is that there is something inherently perverse, something pathological, about the kind of person that cares more for his right to own semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines, all behind a veil of privacy, more than the safety and security of children. Or innocent civilians. Or wolves. Or whatever the sacred cow du jour happens to be. The only reason, say the Moral Highgrounders, a person could feel that way is if there is something fundamentally wrong with them.

Where do we draw that line?

Consider our rights of free speech and privacy. Someone, somewhere, once exercised the right of free speech and wrote The Anarchist’s Cookbook. I don’t know who. I don’t know when. I’m not going to look it up to find out. I have no idea why the author(s) wrote that, or what motivated the publisher to publish it, what prompts sellers to make it available, or drives a person to desire a copy, much less procure one and keep it on hand.

I assume at least a fair few of those folks did it for the money. What other motivation might be present, however? Could it be that some folks are just pushing the envelope just because they can? The most extreme things I’ve ever written have been taunts. Even then, I know I’m at least a little driven by an obnoxious little voice inside that says, “I’m writing this because I can and you can’t stop me!” Never mind whether or not what I write finds an outlet. It’s not about that. If I want to write about the murderous exploits of a conservative genderqueer Evangelical Christian couple with a pair of shih tzus wearing sweaters emblazoned with Penis and Vagina in large red letters, that’s my right and nobody’s gonna stop me! Decorum be damned. I’m a fuckin’ rockstar and I’m gonna write that shit.

As luck has it, most of that sort of dreck finds an audience of one and dies stillborn without ever needing to suffer the ravages of time. Sometimes a Marquis de Sade comes along and breaks the mold. Or a George Bataille. Or a performance art group named Coum Transmissions. Or, modern day, it’s a genre, transgressive fiction, with writers like Chuck Palahniuk and directors like Quentin Tarantino taking tabu to the masses. Even a brief scan through obscenity court cases goes far to confirming that the debate on limits to free speech is far from over. These artists so engaged are treated as heroes by some for pushing the envelope and reviled by others for being so crass as to flout societal norms just because they can.

In the meanwhile, there are plenty of extreme examples of the arts waiting to adorn your shelves, walls, and video displays. This is where we really get to enjoy the full extent of our right to privacy, isn’t it? Well, if you’ve been watching the news for the last decade or so, you’d know that’s not the case any longer. For all the privacy protections we have there are countless little workarounds so that others may become aware of what you procure, with or without your knowledge. Unless you wore a disguise to your favorite dilapidated bookstore, avoided cameras, and paid cash for that copy of Justine, someone know you have it.

What of it, though? That’s just the acquisition. So you’ve got the book. Now what? Likely, you read it. But what if that wasn’t the point to begin with. What if you’re just a collector? What if the whole point of having a shelf of de Sade, Masoch, Bataille, Lautreamont, Buchowski, Palahniuk, and Tarrantino, set off with a 3-DVD set of Hungarian Bovine cosplay porn was, “just because you can and nobody can stop you?” Even then, is the collection proudly displayed in the living room, to be shown off to all comers against a soundtrack of Karen Finley’s puerile prurience? Different people might make different choices there, but dammit, they can have it, and that’s the point!

What, then, if we stray from the realms of fiction and “art” and move back into the drier climes of non-fiction? What about that copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook? Or the 1969 Improvised Munitions Manual? Or the How to Kill series? Or texts on tax “avoision,” lockpicking, safe-cracking, drug making, or changing your identity? Between money and “because I can,” I think we can cover the majority of the motivations for writing these works. One generally hopes the writers aren’t actively catering to the perceived needs of some demographic, the um, shall we say, Criminal Psychopaths ages 14-34, but it is entirely possible to get into a writer’s head and see how, “someone deserving might actually have a completely legitimate reason for wishing to know this one day.” I walk in and find someone savaging a loved one in my living room and the only thing at hand is a screwdriver, I might be grateful for How To Kill’s doodle of a screwdriver being applied judiciously to the top of someone’s skull.

I suspect the publishers and distributors of such content probably break down along the same lines as the writers, with some in it for the money, some just because they can be, and some romanticizing themselves as noble bastions of liberty.

But what about the audience, the freedom of association, and the right to privacy? Privacy? ROFLMMFAO. Sure, buddy. You just go right ahead and order a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook online (without resort to a darknet), put it on a card issued to you under your real name, and wait to not end up on a list somewhere. Good luck with that. You want a book like that without a trail ending in a proctological exam? Cash and no cameras.
But why? Why on God’s green earth do you even want The Omnibus of Evil Deeds, Vol. 3? What reason could you possibly have for wanting to know that 9 parts positonium and 1 part negaterium mixed with Bisquick makes a potent plastique that will only explode in your face 1 time out of 20?

Well, what if you were writing a book and needed “source material?” Or background for an interview? What if, “one day I might actually need to know how to shoot a handful of screws at the mailman as he comes up my sidewalk” is the farthest thing from your mind? What if your only reason for even wanting the damned thing is, “because I’m allowed to have it, and nobody can make me not have it?”

Then what? Will it be proudly displayed on the coffee table? Why not? Worried about who might see it? Or worse, who they might tell?

What are you, some kind of book nut? A “book fetishist?” What’s wrong with you that you care more for your dear “freedom” more than you care about the innocent people of Dystopia, East Carolina?

So as long as we’re having a discussion about tabu and the unseemly exercise of rights, and so long as restrictions, meaningful or otherwise, are being discussed for the one, how about for the other? Where do we draw the line on books and videos? Or the portrayal of sex, even of the tabu-torn-beaten-discarded-bloody-on-the-curb variety? Or the irreverent portrayal of religions, the faithful, their priests, pastors, and prophets, or the gods themselves?

What should we not write? Portray? Record? Film? Instruct?

What would you ban?


Image credit: Book burning by pcorrela @ flikr.com, licensed under Creative Commons.