On what can and what cannot be said

(or – The Prince of California)

People disagree with a passion on what can and what cannot be said. Or what should and should not be said. Hardly anybody takes the extremist position in this discussion that all speech should be outlawed, or that all speech should be free.

For instance, I am generally of the opinion that speech should be free, but I am also vehemently against spam. Not that I begrudge others to speak, but I feel that spammers abuse my initial willingness to listen to any message. Spammers get me fuming with rage almost every day, which can hardly be healthy.

Yet spammers only take to extremes what is otherwise a useful way of piggy-backing on the way humans engage in a dialogue. They very effectively tunnel our attention and our own speech. They bleat out their message, and only allow our credit cards to talk back for us.

When a spammer sends me a pornographic image (and assuming for a second that my e-mail set-up is like that of most people, i.e. I will get to see the porn), the image enters my consciousness. Short of forgetting it, I can not erase that image from my mind, or from my world view. Porn does not bother me much, but it does bother others.

When an artist or anybody else publishes a film, or stars in a published film, the film and the likeness of the artist enters my consciousness. Yet through copyright and portrait right, the makers can forbid me to include these images, that may have been forced upon me, in my own speech.

Should people be able to push speech onto you? If all dialogue is sabotaged, free speech becomes moot. Generally, I agree with “If you don’t want to see the program, switch the channel”. But how far can you take such a principle? Should I stop using e-mail just because of spam? How many channels do I need to have available to me to start feeling that I am not impeded in my choice of dialogue?

Wikipedia has a rule on choosing your login name. As somebody writes on the site: “According to our username policy, inflammatory, deliberately confusing, and other inappropriate usernames are not allowed.” What would be an inappropriate username? Since Wikipedia is largely edited by Americans, the policy in practice means that names of a sexual nature are not allowed. What is appropriate speech to be pushed upon others, depends on the culture of those speaking and those listening.

The past few weeks a couple of cases have come to light in which the discussion about forcing people to listen and forbidding them to speak was prominent. In Irak, a US civilian was beheaded. Should these images be shown on TV? Once shown, should further dissemination be forbidden?

In Argentina, the stolen video tape recording of the Dutch crown prince, his wife and their baby daughter was shown on TV. The cat was out of the bag, yet the Dutch office for suppressing or rewriting news about the royal family (euphemistically called the Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst, State Information Service) wants to have the Dutch TV station and Dutch websites that also showed these images criminally prosecuted.

Meanwhile, in the USA, in California, there is a new governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a famous film actor. As such, his likeness is a product that can be licensed, bought and sold. This is arguably a right he has, both a legal and a moral one. However, since his highly successful movie career, making him a public figure, he has also become a political public figure.

In the debate about what can be said and what cannot be said, Americans generally understand that making fun of a political public figure is allowed. Freedom of speech would be impeded too much if you forbade that. The fact that not everybody agrees with a political figure and what he stands for, to the point that they are willing to mock him, makes it important that reproduction of his likeness be not forbidden.

Yet this is exactly what the Schwarzenegger estate tries to do. Referring to the financial worth of the likeness of Schwarzenegger the actor, it tries to clamp down on those who make light of Schwarzenegger the politician. Perhaps, those who make dolls of Arnold Schwarzenegger do so because the politician is known best as an actor. But should such motivations lead to censorship of political speech? (When the governor tries to shut you up, that’s called censorship.)

As to what should and should not be said: if you don’t want to see the following graphical depiction of a naked actor-turned-governor, or the colourful language with which it is accompanied, just don’t click here. I thought it was appropriate how somebody who coasted to his political position on his fame as an actor alone, without ever stating his political opinions, finally gets caught with his pants down on the issue of free speech. The author of the parody must be forgiven his literal turn of mind.

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