Alumni Column: Rights in Conflict: When Words Fail

Garner Simmons '65

In America, artistic expression is protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment. So is freedom of religion. But when such rights come into conflict, what do these guarantees mean?

The power of words and images. From the earliest petroglyphs scratched on rock walls, man has sought ways to preserve and communicate ideas — to transcend the finite limits of human existence. Over time, these evolved into complex systems of symbols, which, in turn, flowered into written and spoken language as well as the visual arts.

Language allowed for the creation of codified rules of law, both religious and secular, proscribing the acceptable limits of human behavior. But language itself is subversive, for words and images are never absolute. Their meaning is dependent upon both context and point of view.

There are few pieces of art more able to provoke hostility among Christian conservatives than Andreas Serrano’s 1987 photograph titled “Piss Christ” depicting a crucifix in a beaker of the artist’s urine. In 2004, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was praised by Christians of virtually all denominations for its “realistic” depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion while at the same time being reviled by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League for its portrayal of the Pharisees as hate mongers who lust for Jesus’ death. And when Salman Rushdie, an atheist who is Muslim by birth, published his highly regarded novel The Satanic Verses in 1989, the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa condemning him to death for suggesting that several of the Qur’anic verses were improvised by Mohammed and thus were not the “words of Allah.” Clearly, in all of these instances the relative value of the art in question would seem to depend upon the viewer’s religious beliefs.

But art does not have to be viewed through the prism of religion to be seen as offensive. At various times, novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) or Catcher in the Rye (1951) have suffered at the hands of certain extremists who demanded they be removed from school libraries as containing dangerous or seditious ideas that might be harmful if read by children.

In his groundbreaking film The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith portrays the Klu-Klux-Klan as heroic saviors who ride to the rescue of the South from evil carpetbaggers and teach former black slaves the meaning of respect. Following a screening at the White House, then-President Woodrow Wilson declared the film to be “history written in lightning.” But viewed from a twenty-first century perspective, there are those who would ban the film as politically incorrect. Yet is it possible to separate the art from the offensive iconography? Perhaps this is one test of a great civilization. The equal protection of all ideas, not just the ones we as individuals agree with.

How seriously should we concern ourselves with this conflict? On November 2, 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, great-grand nephew of the Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, was murdered in broad daylight on an Amsterdam street — shot several times, his throat slit by a radical Islamist named Mohammed Bouyeri, who claimed the act was justified under Islamic law. Protruding from Van Gogh’s stomach was a knife which ironically affixed a poem written by his killer that began: “This is my last word, riddled with bullets, baptized in blood, as I had hoped…”

Theo Van Gogh’s offense? A ten minute film he had made called Submission that dealt with the words and images of four Muslim women who had been beaten, raped and forced into marriages against their will, all in accordance with Shari’ah law. Half-naked beneath their sheer, translucent chadors, the women’s bodies were covered with words written in Arabic – verses from the Qur’an citing the physical punishments to be meted out to women who offend Allah. A powerful melding of words and images into a cinematic metaphor against sexual abuse. The screenplay had been written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an articulate Somali-born feminist member of the Dutch parliament who has since fleeing to America.

What is striking about this murder is that it so dramatically pits freedom of religion and freedom of expression against one another. And given today’s world, this may very well serve as a glimpse of future confrontations.

Words intrinsically have the power to elicit intense emotions. They allow us to preserve the past, examine the present and predict the future. But their true power comes from their ability to convey controversial ideas, challenge the status quo, reframe the debate. However, in doing so, words become agent provocateurs driving the religious argument, as well as the artistic vision.

Conflict is part of life. In a democracy, all ideas have the right to be debated with equal vigor. But debate is devolving into confrontation, and violence has no place in a civil society.

In the late 1970s at a dinner party on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, two long time literary rivals, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, exchanged words. Whatever it was that Vidal said to him, the exasperated Mailer finally lost his composure and tossed his drink in Vidal’s face. Then, before he could recover, Mailer dropped him with a vicious left. Bleeding profusely, Vidal came off the floor to deliver what was clearly the knockout blow: staring at his adversary, he simply smiled and said of Mailer to all within earshot, “Once again, words failed him.”