Throttling Artistic Expression?

I got an email today from UK reporter Brendan O’Neill.  Apparently he’s writing a story about the RMU dance team.  I don’t know anything about Mr. O’Neill other than what I’ve read on his column at The Telegraph.  The byline there describes him as, “the editor of spiked, an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms.”  I can only assume he thinks I am all of the above. 

Below is the text of his email to me in its entirety, and my email response to him.  Maybe I’m over-reacting?  Time will tell.  

Dear Chrisa,

I am a journalist normally based in London but currently writing a couple of pieces from Chicago. I am writing on the controversy over the “straitjacket dance” performed by RMU students last month. But I am coming at it from a different angle than most other journalists.

My interest is whether in effectively censuring the dance troupe in response to a complaint from one woman, RMU has impeded on students’ freedom of expression. If you have time to answer the following questions, as briefly as you like, that would be excellent:

1) Why should your feelings of offendedness override students’ rights to peform as they see fit? Might this be seen as a potentially authoritarian stance?

2) Surely there is not right “not to be offended”. There is, however, a very important right to artistic expression. What do you think about that?

3) Is it not possibly an attack on artistic students’ freedom of expression to forbid them from performing this dance again?

4) Do you think there is a danger that this episode will lead to RMU only commissioning “safe” dance routines that are unlikely to cause offence? And isn’t that potentially a recipe for bland, almost censored performances?

Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,
Brendan O’Neill

Dear Mr. O’Neill: 

Interesting take on it.  I’d be happy to answer your questions, because, as your questions illustrate to me, you haven’t bothered to read the letter I actually wrote to the school President and coaches.  It seems you have already conceived of what you feel are the correct answers by the way the questions are phrased.  I surmise you intend to write an article about how I am a soul-crushing busy-body, bound and determined to sanitize the world against anything that might offend.  You obviously know very little about me, nor care to.  If you took a few more moments to get to know me, you’d realize I am not as one-dimensional as the questions you pose seem to suggest I am.

In response:

1) I never requested that the school censor or in any other way stop the team from dancing in whatever costumes they see fit.  Nowhere in my letter did I suggest they start reviewing the dance team’s costumes, as President Viollt said would now be done to Tribune reporter John Keilman.  His choice.  Not my request or suggestion.

2) Of course they have a right to “artistic expression.”  Keep in mind, however, this dance team is not part of the Fine Arts department.  It is considered and regulated as an athletic sport – which you’d know if you’d seen their website or read the response I received from the Athletic Director of the University.

3) See the answer to #1.  

4) Honestly?  I seriously doubt anything will change.  There was a reporter, he called and asked questions, and the President of the University responded.  I think you’re unlikely to see them in straight jackets again because they’ve already done it, all the way to the National level, not because of any censoring by the University or anyone else.  And for that, there’s little reason for anything to change, is there?

Mr. O’Neill, you, as much as RMU, and others who replied negatively to my letter seemed to miss the point in its entirety.  The point was not to quash a bunch of teenaged girls.  The point was that these young women are at exactly the age when most mental illnesses hit.  Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia routinely begin showing between 15-24, and college students are particularly susceptible to depression.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death for persons their age, and NIMH statistics show that between 10 and 20% of them will experience some type of mental health concern in their lifetime.  Even more concerning is that more than 60% of them will never get treatment, and a major reason for that is the stigma they fear of persons with mental illness, because of how they are portrayed in the media and entertainment.  Think of it this way – of the 30 or so girls on RMU’s three dance teams, between 3 and 6 of them either have or will develop depression, bipolar disorder, paralyzing anxiety, or schizophrenia.  And, if they’d just done a dance routine dressed as crazed  mental patients, would they get help?  Would they tell their coach? Their friends?  Probably not.  And if they’d thought of that before they chose those costumes, maybe they would have chosen differently.  

60 years ago, if they had done a routine in blackface, someone may have voiced concern.  And they would very likely have been pooh-poohed as not having a sense of humor, or as wanting to sanitize the team’s creative expression.  

30 years ago, if they’d dressed in the exaggerated stereotype of butch lesbians, someone may have voiced concern.  And they would very likely have been dismissed in kind.  

15 years ago, if they’d dressed and danced as retarded persons, someone may have voiced concern.  And they would likely have been told to lighten up.  

Today, the dance team at a private university would never have considered those portrayals. 

Something to ponder.  

Please let me know when you publish your article.  I would love to post a link to it from my blog.  

Chrisa Hickey 

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