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 

Related Posts

  • picklesprincess March 21, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Wonderful repsonse!!!
    Once again I am proud to have your voice speaking on behalf of us and our kids.

  • marythemom March 21, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Very good response. Way to stay calm against someone obviously fishing for drama.

    Mary in TX

  • Anonymous March 22, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Its me. Anon. Listen, I have given you a hard time in the past, but know this…I have NEVER questioned your advocacy for your son. Your letter and responses to these people are classy, intelligent, and driven by fact not irrational emotion. Please don't let the ignorance of a few get to you. (and by ignorance I do mean lack of knowledge)

    As a person who developed almost debilitating depression in college, I can imagine having had someone like you out there fighting for me. Maybe it wouldn't have taken me years of heartache to finally admit and confront my personal mental illness.

    I wouldn't expect an intelligent and mature response as that would take a mature person responding. But know that you have supporters and fans, even the ones who can be "challenging".

    Praying for you and your family.

  • Chrisa March 22, 2011 at 1:48 am

    Without the dig at the end, I wouldn't have recognized you. 🙂

    I do thank you for your note. I am all for open debate. I look forward to more of it with you, over lots of issues. And I sincerely appreciate your prayers.

  • Anonymous March 23, 2011 at 12:28 am

    LOL – Chrisa… I meant from the man who called you!!! I wasn't aiming at your head.

  • Chrisa March 23, 2011 at 12:29 am

    Whoops – my bad! Sometimes sarcasm doesn't translate well in the written word. Apologies.

  • Kim March 30, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Interesting. I am a freelance reporter for a Web site and find some things interesting. First of all, I understand that he is in London, but he should have made the effort to reach out and call you. His questions are truly biased also. Second, as someone who has struggled with depression for many years, I say good for you! How sick that these girls would dance in straight jackets!

  • Chrisa March 30, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    HI Kim – interestingly, he said he was in Chicago when he sent this email, so, I guess he could have called. After I answered, the Japan quake and tsunami, then Lybia happened, and he has yet to write this story. Maybe it wasxjust a slow news day when he contemplated it. 🙂

  • Kim April 1, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Oh duh. 🙂 I see now. Still, what a….(bad word insert here). I guess it was a slow news day! 🙂

  • Kait April 28, 2011 at 10:32 am

    I am not trying to diminish your pain, and can understand that you did not specifically tell the school to censor art.

    However, as one who is not receiving any services from RMU, and one who did not even witness the dance competition, it would behoove you to realize that you don't have a very good case for being able to control what is produced at the University.

    As the dancers are actually paying for a liberal arts education and are now getting a less than liberal one, can't you understand why people deem it unfair for your word to have caused such a heavy-handed outcome?

    I suppose it's your condescending, callous attitude toward free expression that gets my goat most.

    You do not have a protected right not to be offended. No one does. Otherwise people might have a case against the contents of one of your lovely blog posts if they deem it offensive. How would you feel then?

    What next? Do you hope to get any and all media depicting strait jackets banned? I saw Michael Scott on the Office wearing one not too long ago. Bugs Bunny I'm sure has depicted this common caricature. Will you be writing to the offices of NBC and the Cartoon Network next?

  • Chrisa April 28, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Kait: you yourself throw around words like "schizophrenic" and "psychotic" as adjectives on your blog – talking about interior design. They aren't adjectives. They are medical diagnoses. When you nonchalantly sprinkle them through your jovial commentary, you unwittingly perpetuate the stigma that mental health conditions are not medical conditions that require treatment, but are annoying quirks that a person with such a diagnosis did to themselves. You didn't call your friend – the one who likes interior design shows and shops at Anthropologie – by any other insensitive stereotype. Just psychotic and schizophrenic. The words are just accepted as ok to use this way today. But hopefully it won't always be that way. Lots of words used to be ok to say. But I don't see you using other words that used to be ok to use to signify someone is doing something you think is silly like "retarded". Why is that? Because it's insensitive?