Friday, July 17, 2009

Revisiting Jerry Falwell’s Mother and Stanley Fish

Prof. Stanley Fish

This essay is not about Jerry Falwell’s mother instead it is about Stanley Fish says about Free Speech. What does Jerry Falwell’s mother to do with this? In 1983 Larry Flynn, publisher of Hustler, published a parody interview with Jerry Falwell in which Mr. Falwell remises about his first time. In this case his first time was with his mother in an outhouse! Mr. Falwell sued and lost. The various courts ruling that Larry Flynn’s freedom of speech rights were trumped Jerry Falwell and his mother’s damaged reputations. Well some people were disturbed by this outcome. One of them was Stanley Fish a Professor of Duke University and a noted Post-Modernist thinker. But then Prof. Stanley Fish entitled a collection of his essays There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and it’s a good thing too.1 The book contains a essay on Freedom of Speech, with the title above which is also used as the title of the book, which is about how Freedom of Speech doesn’t really exist and an essay about the libel case involving Jerry Falwell.

Through it all Prof. Fish manages quite simply not to get it.

For example he says:
“Free speech” is just the name we give to verbal behaviour that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance; and we give out preferred verbal behaviours that name when we can, when we have the power to do so, because in the rhetoric of American life, the label “Free Speech” is one you want for your favourites to wear. Free speech, in short, is not an independent value but a political prize, and if that prize has been captured by a politics opposed to yours, it can no longer be invoked in ways that further your purposes, for it is now an obstacle to those purposes.2
Later Prof. Fish articulates the idea that freedom of expression assumes that some speech is meaningless or wrong to say. Really?

Prof. Fish is articulating a position which states that the demand for “Free Speech” is always inherently political and used to advance a position and that it is not a independent position. In other words it is always political and that no one really believes in “Free Speech” as an abstract value.

By arguing that “Free Speech” is political Prof. Fish brings it into the argument for debate, by assuming it is political he can argue that limitations on it are merely like “Free Speech” political positions. Thus Prof. Fish can argue for limitations on speech.

But then Prof. Fishes' point is that the crowd of anti “politically correct” pundits etc., have captured the ground of “Free Speech” so that arguments for “Free Speech” by “Liberal” or “Progressive” groups etc., have conceded that ground to the enemy so that the debate must shift to how “Free Speech” isn’t real and how it can be and is limited, so we can then discuss what can be banned.

One wonders how Prof. Fish with his assumption that “Free Speech” is always political tailors with people like Prof, Chomsky’ defence of Holocaust deniers like Robert Faurisson right to speak.3 Prof. Fish seems to think that “Free Speech” is purely a political act designed to advance a particular political position. This is false. To quote Chomsky:
But I’m saying if you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. I mean Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. Right? So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise, otherwise you’re not in favour of freedom of speech. There’s two positions you can have on freedom of speech, and you can decide which position you want.4
Prof. Fish seems to be totally unaware of this sort of position.

Prof. Fish then goes into a rather useless rant about how speech related injuries can be hurtful and painful and should not be trivialized and then Prof. Fish talks about how a recommended solution that the solution to this is more speech trivializes the harm. That speech operates in the real world and that to treat speech like it was mere ideas forgets that they are actions.5

This of course a straw man and Prof. Fish’s statement that the more speech argument trivializes the “harm” speech can do is a nice example of Prof. Fish indicating that he is in the end not very radical at all. Chomsky among many others can tell him how the media is constrained by market and other forces to marginalize and largely shut out opinion contrary to powerful interests. Such that more speech is indeed a powerful tool and very much in the interest of the powerless and marginal. Further that constraints on speech will be controlled directly and / or indirectly by these powerful interests, so just how would the powerless and marginal benefit from that? Chomsky and others like him have a powerful distrust of the state and its various institutions and Prof. Fish is here indicating quite strongly an almost childlike trust in such things.6

The speech codes that Prof. Fish is here defending are of course under control of the institutions in question and Prof. Fish’s trust in the good faith of those institutions is touching and frankly naïve.

But then Prof. Fish “knows” that “Free Speech” is always about politics:
When the First Amendment is successfully invoked, the result is not a victory for free speech in the face of a challenge from politics but a political victory won by the party that has managed to wrap its agenda in the mantle of free speech.7
Really? I just wonder how this explains the ACLU defending the rights of Klansmen, Neo-Nazi and Fundamentalists to “Free Speech”. Given that the ACLU routinely defends groups and people whose positions are radically different from and contrary to ACLU positions on all sorts of issues.8

Prof. Fish does not seem to understand that the ACLU position and those who think along the same lines, is that you give opinions you despise freedom to be expressed, precisely to defend your own freedom to express your own opinions. Not as he seems to think that “Freedom of Speech” will lead in the end to “right” or “true” opinions to dominate. As for the Prof. Fish’s argument that speech can cause “harm”, well so what! The problem is that which speech causes “harm” is very much a personal matter. I have little doubt that I could easily find Conservative pundits, Fundamentalists who regard the speech of Fish and others like him has “grievous and deeply wounding”9, and of course causing untold harm, and therefore it should be suppressed.

Prof. Fish seems to be totally unaware that there are other grounds for attacking so-called Conservatives wrapping themselves in the mantle of “Free Speech”. One of course is the unmitigated hypocrisy of such a stance when many so-called Conservative pundits routinely call for the suppression of speech they do not like, and in fact have engaged in quite disgusting campaigns of attempted suppression. Or that Conservative educational institutions, Fundamentalist schools etc., routinely suppress “Free Speech” and other First Amendment rights but that Conservative pundits etc., pass over these offences in silence.10

Further that speech codes can be defended on the grounds that they are often vastly less restrictive than the arbitrary authority and grounds which the authorities who run those institutions can discipline for “bad” behaviour or words. Further that it is important to realize that these institutions being private institutions have a greater right to regulate the behaviour of the people who are privileged to be allowed into them. These arguments may be good or bad but they are certainly better than the convoluted stew that Prof. Fish argues for.11

But then in a rather convoluted series of passages Prof. Fish ends up arguing for regulation of speech, because in the end Prof. Fish doesn’t wish to hear speech he doesn’t like. Of course Prof. Fish is utterly unaware that there are people who don’t want to hear his opinions and wish to suppress them, using the very same logic he does.

What does this have to do with Jerry Falwell’s mother?

Reverend Jerry Falwell
Well in 1983 Larry Flynn published, in his sex magazine Hustler, a vicious parody of Reverend Jerry Falwell reminiscing about his first time; first time having sex that is. Making it problematic Reverend Falwell was describing having sex with his mother in an outhouse. That is definitely really nasty! Certainly this is to put it mildly tasteless and certainly going after Jerry Falwell is one thing but his mother also?! Jerry Falwell sued for libel.

But then Prof. Fish ruins the whole thing by a couple of statements such as:
So what we have here is a false and malicious depiction of two people with the avowed intention of wounding one so that his ability to function as a minister of the gospel would be destroyed.12
Well poor Reverend Falwell! I note that Prof. Fish says this after admitting that the article says very clearly that it is a parody. It is rather interesting that Prof. Fish avoids any mention of Reverend Falwell’s own very well developed capacity for malice and cruelty. As for being a minister of the gospel many would disagree with that. But then the phrase is purposely designed to raise sympathy for Mr. Falwell. Forgetting of course that in the departments of political and economic power Falwell vastly exceeded Flynn. We are not talking about an innocent here. Then Prof. Fish makes it very clear that he doesn’t like Flynn very much or pornography or considers pornography a form of legitimate “speech” because it is not about politics. At this point Prof. Fish makes the comment about the founding fathers would not have considered obscenity true speech. So!?13 At that point it is hard to take Prof. Fish seriously.

This entire spiel is designed to once again support the idea that certain types of speech should be suppressed in this case pornography. This requires, in the present example, a demonization of Larry Flynn. I will simply tell Prof. Fish that he should read Gore Vidal’s essay Sex is Politics,14 if he seriously thinks pornography is not a form of speech.
Larry Flynn

Later Prof. Fish makes some comment that we already regulate speech with the rather obvious implied and direct contention that we should continue to regulate speech.15 Prof. Fish once again doesn’t get it. Everything that exists in human life is regulated one way or the other that is the nature of human existence and frankly even the most extreme free speech absolutist knows this. (Prof. Fish creates a rather absurd caricature of such a person). After all everyone with any sense knows about yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire is not protected speech. The point is how much / how speech should be regulated. By redefining the issue to whether or not speech should be regulated at all Prof. Fish avoids this problem. Of course setting up the straw man of the position that the alternative to that position is one of no regulation, and demonstrating that such a position is simply stupid Prof. Fish once again tilts at windmills.

It is of interest that Prof. Fish admits that attempts to define a rational basis for declaring something obscene are contradictory, difficult and absurd but draws no conclusions that perhaps this indicates that trying to do so outside very narrow range of limits perhaps should not be done. Instead Prof. Fish believes that this indicates that perhaps deciding what is obscene should be deduced entirely outside rational discourse. Which of course would make it possible to ban pornography because he finds it personally icky. One again Prof. Fish forgets that many people might find his type of discourse also personally icky and so therefore it should be banned.

Now regarding the above case I wonder if Prof. Fish is ready to allow everyone to be sued who refers to someone has a “son of a bitch”, because after all such a statement calls someone’s mother a dog. In this case the piece was clearly indicated to be a parody and not to be taken seriously, and it is clear that the piece was an attack on Reverend Falwell not his mother. So frankly I agree with the verdict that rejected the libel claim. Despite Prof Fish’s insinuations the fact that Larry Flynn publishes pornography is simply not relevant in this case. But then it is clear that Prof. Fish doesn’t like Larry Flynn or pornography. So he is here basically arguing for allowing the suppression of pornography on the grounds it is not legitimate “speech”.

That said I still find the parody piece offensive and it would have been nice if Larry Flynn had published an apology to Jerry Falwell’s mother.16 In my opinion the piece was unnecessarily tasteless and Jerry Falwell’s mother should have been left alone.

In the end Prof Fish seems to have problems with freedom so I quote:

Those who do not understand that freedom has value in itself, though its expression necessarily produces evil as well as good, are poorly suited to the culture of democracy.17
1, Fish, Stanley, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.

2, IBID, p. 102.

3, A lot of nonsense as been written about this. I would just note that Chomsky’s defence of Robert Faurisson is solely a defence of his right to speak and not be silenced, not of Robert Faurisson’s utterly repellent views. I will forgo linking to or referring to any of Robert Faurisson’s works. You just need to Google to find his filth. See Wintonick, Peter, & Achbar, Mark, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1994, pp.175-191.

4, Wintonick et al, p. 184.

5, IBID, pp. 108-109.

6, See Chomsky, Noam, & Herman, Edward S., Manufacturing Consent, Revd. Edition, Pantheon Books, New York, 2004.

7, Fish, p. 110.

8, See the ACLU website, Here.

9. Fish p. 109.

10, See for example Wilson, John K., The Myth of Political Correctness, Duke University Press, London, 1995, and Jenkinson, Edward B., Censors in the Class Room, Discus Books, 1979. See also Weiner, Jon, Historians in Trouble, The New Press, New York, 2005. A classic action is the ouster of Ward Churchill who was ousted from his tenure position at the University of Colorado over alleged academic misconduct when the actual reason, (as determined by a trial) was some controversial, and frankly rather disgusting statements regarding 911 he foolishly uttered and wrote. I will not repeat them, just Google. Well Prof. Churchill won his wrongful termination suit. Basically a lot of so called Conservative pundits and others went baying for his blood and to get him turfed. They got more than they bargained for from Prof. Churchill. I still find his comments repellent but frankly the Universities teem with Profs having disgusting opinions that is no reason to fire them. See The Ward Churchill Trial, Here.

11, See Wilson, pp. 90-135.

12, Fish, p. 120.

13. IBID, pp. 120-133.

14, in The Second American Revolution and other Essays 1976-1982, Random house, New York, 1982.

15, Fish, pp. 128-130.

16. As far as I can tell Hustler never printed an apology to Jerry Falwell’s mother. I in all modesty suggest the following:
Mrs Falwell we would like to apologize for unintentially causing you pain and anguish. It was our intention to hit that hypocrite turd of a son of yours and it was a mistake to drag you into our dispute with him. So once again our sincere apologies.
17. Revel, Jean-Francois, The Totalitarian Temptation, Penguin Books, New York, 1977, p. 17.

Pierre Cloutier

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