There are days when one is struck with that proverbial flash of brilliance, and when it comes banging into your head, the floodgates are thrown open and a powerful surging force carries everything in its path downriver, including your will. You are, for a few precious and lofty seconds, the slave to your genius (by which I mean the ancient concept of a genius, a kind of living essence or spirit of things) and something partway between intuition and intellectual pride takes over your mind and body. This is an amazing feeling, one that is, in my experience, quite superior to any drug-induced high or sexual orgasm. Perhaps it’s because it is the rarest of phenomena, at least for me. You may be blessed to have these mother-of-all-epiphanies once or twice a week or even daily; as for me, I must content myself with being struck with it once or twice every decade.
On most days these things tend to hit me when I am at home, often while reading or thinking about a story I’m working on or some such. There is, however, a jewel of a day for me in which not only was I caught up by the thought, but I was granted along with it the courage to challenge a college professor with whom I was politically and philosophically at odds. This particular professor, one of my Communications profs, in fact (my college major was journalism), was relentlessly conservative and a staunch Christian. She was also one of those people who could stare at a student and reduce him or her to quivering jelly, if you know what I mean.
As a university student I was generally quiet, although I usually made it a point to sit at the front of all my classes and pay strict attention to what was being said. Usually I took notes. This professor, who was teaching a Media Ethics class at the time if I’m not mistaken, was lecturing us about censorship, and it became increasingly clear that she actually favored censorship, an idea that rather horrified me at the time.
[A side note here: the notion that college profs are as a rule extremely liberal is in my experience a misconception. First, it depends on where the university is. If it’s a large metropolitan university, well of course the professors are bound to be more liberal. It doesn’t take a genius (I mean the other kind this time) to figure out that city folks tend to lean liberal and country folks tend to lean conservative. The university I attended was in a moderately sized town in the South, but most of my profs were either moderates or hardcore conservatives of the Bible-thumping variety. Second, it has been my experience that, despite their reputation for a liberal bias, media people actually tend to have a conservative bias; I suspect this is to publicly counteract the prevailing mythology of a liberal media.]
Anyhow, this prof–let’s call her Dr. Nicneven, which isn’t her real name obviously but sounds somewhat similar to her real name–brought up a discussion of the 2 Live Crew controversy in the late 1980s, which I remember quite well. If you don’t know the story kiddies, read up about the album that caused all the fuss, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, here, here and here. Basically a Christian media watchdog going by the unassuming name of American Family Association filed an obscenity suit against 2 Live Crew after the release of the aforesaid album and the presiding judge ruled in favor of the AFA, effectively rendering the album illegal and setting up the band for arrest when they next performed (which they were, as well as some store owners who sold the album). These arrests were successfully appealed at the U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and thus the album’s legality was reinstated. Moreover, the controversy assured that the group would be propelled into the international limelight, with As Nasty as They Wanna Be, a not particularly good rap album (that’s being generous actually) that barely would have made ripples if not for the brouhaha, winding up selling like hotcakes.
And that is pretty much the entire history of censorship in America: the great majority of writers, musicians and artists that were initially censored were eventually vindicated, and in many cases were made famous by these cases, assuring brisk sales of their work. It is safe to say that censorship has rarely been bad for business–quite the opposite, really, much to the chagrin of the censorious types. You would think that these blacklisters, bowdlerizers and expungers would learn from history, and maybe to a large degree they have, but inevitably someone finds something to be so offensive as to warrant legal measures to keep eyes and ears from being “assaulted” with said media.
But I digress. I had remained quiet throughout the lecture while my ire continued to wax, but alas Dr. Nicneven expressed her view that certain material deemed offensive by the moral gatekeepers should be regulated because it might instigate criminal activity, and without a pause I blurted out, “But you can’t do that. You can’t punish society for a crime that hasn’t been committed yet.”
My professor replied in turn, “And some people believe that,” but it was clear to everyone present that the idea had never really occurred to her–not, at least, in such a quintessential way. Now, I am not so naive as to think that this point was a revolutionary one on my part, nor that this woman who held a doctorate in Communications had never been introduced to the concept in some form. And to be perfectly honest, having just released the killing blow to her argument, I was actually as stunned by my words as she was. Wherever it had come from, my verbal jab had deflated her, this mighty bastion of Christian pride and prudery, and she finished out her lecture sitting rather than standing as was customary for her, and not even at her desk at the center of the classroom but in a chair near the classroom door. When the class was over and students were filing out, she made a point of saying to me–one of the last students to leave–that I had made a compelling argument, and she meant it. She was honest anyway. I’ll give her that.
I think what had really gotten to her was the sleek ultramodern nature of my dispute, an idea that was political equivalent of the sci-fi film Minority Report, wherein psychics are employed by the police force to capture criminals prior to their actual commission of a crime. Dr Nick, as luck would have it, was a fan of science fiction, in particular the TV series Star Trek, a show which had certainly dealt with the moral implications of the abuses of time. I am certain of precious few things in this life, but one thing I am reasonably sure of is that my most stalwartly conservative professor had never before been confronted with the notion that censorship punished the many to prevent the possible (but by my no means certain) infractions of the few who might be so negatively influenced. When reduced down to those terms, it becomes readily obvious to any thinking person that such an argument for censorship is embarrassingly unsound, to say the least.
To this day it is the one moment, brief as it was, of my college days that I am most proud of. It is the glorious crown my intellectual life, even though I cannot say from whence the words, let alone the thought, came barreling out of me. And it is still the most satisfying argument against media censorship I have in my debate arsenal.