Recently a 19 year-old art student was arrested because she had paraded half-naked dressed like a Pope from the waist up and in her birthday suit from her waist down. Her pubic hair was shaved in the shape of a cross and she was handing out condoms to everyone. Alright, nothing controversial there, so why am I babbling about it?
Well, the problem is that she was not, in fact, arrested for dressing half-naked as a religious figure, but simply for disorderly conduct. In fact, the Carnegie Mellon President says that she will face no disciplinary repercussions, because the incident sets at odds “competing values.” Seriously, what does that even mean? If we are actually talking about “values,” what used to be called Moral Laws, until Hume came along, then they cannot contradict if there is an objective basis for morality. If we are talking about value-opinions, then CMU’s President and the rest of CMU need to be open to the fact that one of their value-opinions, seeing how it contradicts another, might be wrong. I will come back to this later, but for the time being, this is a quote from CMU’s statement, “While I recognize that many found the students’ acts deeply offensive, the university upholds their right to create works of art and express their ideas. But, public nudity is a violation of the law and subject to appropriate action.” Well, why is this different from other cases, say, the student from the University of South Carolina, who nearly got in a lot of trouble for flying a Confederate flag until they found out he was African-American. Now, I really don’t have an opinion on the USC case, but my issue is that the CMU is classifying this incident as a “freedom of expression” issue, which I think is a big lie. Imagine if the USC student had been white and that he had been hanging the Confederate flag out of hatred for African-Americans and, suppose that while people we coming to talk to him he had blackface on. Doubtless, he would have been in a lot of trouble and I think he would have deserved every last bit of it. How awkward do you think it would be if he then turned around to say that his blackface and his hanging the Confederate flag by his window was “artistic expression”?
My question is, in what ways is this different? Obviously, the African-American community has been oppressed in this country, but that does not mean that that is why it is legitimate for people to be reprimanded when carrying out such acts. The Jewish community was not oppressed in this country, but if someone were to shave their pubic hair in the shape of a swastika and hand out fliers or something else of the sort asking for a new genocide on Jews, would they not be reprimanded? Well, what about Christianity. This episode of “freedom of expression” featured the girl shaving her pubic hair into the shape of a cross and then putting on a cardboard mitre and Papal staff in addition to a “chasuble,” with a cross on it, which only covered her breasts, handing out condoms. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much intellectual expression there. Of course, I am very much for protecting her ability to be opposed to the Catholic Church, but there’s a not-so-fine line between being intellectually opposed to an idea or even an institution and profanely parodying and insulting them. One is perfectly permissible, the other one isn’t.
Strange as this sounds, there is actually a parallel to this coincides with Socrates’ lifetime. During the Peloponnesian War, all the penises of the Herms (blocks of marble depicting the god Hermes’ head up top and his penis half-way through; it makes perfect sense why Socrates didn’t agree with the state religion) in Athens were broken, an act seen as great sacrilege in Greek religion. Alcibiades (you’ll know about him if you’ve read the dialogues) was found to be guilty, but because he was rich, he escaped with his life. This is in contrast with Socrates himself, who opposed Greek religion on account of the things it attributed to the gods (by the way, it is not true that Socrates/Plato was an atheist, if anyone disagrees, they should read the Phaedo and the Timaeus), was put to death. I think we have the same situation here. Anytime someone makes an intellectual argument (as opposed to the stupidity and futility of people like the ones associated with the Westboro Baptist Church) against gay marriage or abortion, they are labelled hateful, close-minded, bigoted, and the rest of the list of epithets. However, when someone does something like this girl, it’s “artistic expression.” Perhaps that’s the same argument Alcibiades used to keep his life in Athens. The only problem is that here it is not the student herself that is making this argument, but the school that is handing this argument to her, the same school that is supposed to teach her to become a good and honorable human being (that is the point of liberal education in case you had missed it).