I am writing in response to how our campus community has responded to one student’s decision to exercise her “freedom of speech” and dress as a victim of domestic violence for Halloween. It saddens me that while the students who spoke against her felt confident to give their names to the Gatepost, the student who felt that the campus was reacting as a “lynch mob” decided to remain anonymous. What have we come to as a community when individuals feel the need to self-censor in order not to be perceived as politically incorrect?
Well, I am not going to self-censor and be afraid of the “thought police” on campus. I choose to speak out in defense of creative individual expression and against those who are throwing their proverbial stones while living in their proverbial glass houses.
First, I will speak directly to Sara Silvestro’s editorial and how she wants to protect victims of domestic violence from having images “imprinted in their minds” that are “insensitive and disturbing,” and that may cause a trigger releasing memories and dark fears. I am a “survivor” of domestic violence, and although I have to bear the burden of remembering what happened to me, I cannot let it be a reason for denying anyone the right to depict a representation of that memory. If we start down that road, we include the censorship of Stephen Colbert, John Stewart, and the films of Sasha Baron Cohen: “The Dictator” (2012), “Bruno” (2009) and “Borat” (2006). And that doesn’t even touch the tip of the artists’ iceberg.
Secondly, I speak to Jennifer Johnson’s editorial in which she says that there are certain situations that should not be relegated to humor for easing the feelings of pain and awkwardness. What is the criteria for deciding which human travesties can be depicted with humor and which cannot? Once we have established this criteria as a civil society, we are no longer a civil society.
Next, I speak to the context of Halloween and our affinity for embracing our dark sides. We all live the paradox of pursuing fruitful lives knowing that we will die some day. Halloween lets us express some of those disturbing realities. We die. We kill each other. We maim each other. We torture each other. In our human condition, none of us is innocent. Our children play war games either with toy guns and action figures or with video games. We watch violent films. We are drawn to all of the nuances of human drama. “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Dexter,” “The Killing,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Orange is the New Black” are only a few examples. Literature, of course, is another super storm of the human experience. This editorial would be too long if I even started down that path.
In recent news, celebrities have been scandalized and forced to make public apologies for being “Crazy Eyes” from “Orange is the New Black,” “Native Americans” or a member of the Ku Klux Klan. People have chosen to dress as ebola victims, ISIS militants and other terrorists. But the one that resonates the most for me is Heidi Klum, who dressed up as the goddess, Kali, for Halloween in 2008 and was forced to make an apology to the Hindu-American community for “posing as a sacred figure” for her “selfish agenda.” In 2001, as a response to my unfortunate experience of domestic violence in a marital context, I legally changed my last name to Kali, the Hindu goddess of chaos and destruction. This, for me, was empowering, as it helped me to believe that from the chaos and destruction of domestic violence, I would emerge anew. So, should I make a public apology to the Hindu-American community for using a “sacred figure” for my “selfish agenda?” You answer that question. I already have.
Our student’s decision (and a courageous commendable one) to be a domestic violence victim for Halloween pushes an envelope we dare not push. The demons, goblins, ghouls, ghosts and zombies are perhaps euphemisms for what we fear the most – ourselves.
Professor of Communication Arts