September 18, 2014
The Shortest Distance Between Two Opposing Points of View Is a Punch Line
Posted on May 2, 2011
By Mr. Fish
“Is it my fault that that knucklehead doesn’t have a sense of humor?” I said.
“Forget about her sense of humor,” he said. “You gave her a black eye! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“So I gave her a black eye,” I said, slumping down in my seat. “Who cares? What about my fucking First Amendment rights?”
“You have the right to bear arms, too, you jackass,” he said, “but you’re not allowed to shoot people! Freedom of speech doesn’t mean shit so long as people have broader rights protecting them against things they don’t want to fucking listen to!” I didn’t answer him and just stared out the window, determining that I’d kill myself if I didn’t think killing everybody else was a better idea. He was right, of course—but it would take me another 20 years to figure out just how right he was, when editors would start refusing to publish individual cartoons of mine because they were afraid of a potential misreading of its content or intent.
There are three categories of speech that are considered “unprotected” by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They are: obscenity, libel and “fighting words.” Obscenity is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as anything that is: 1. offensive to morality or decency; indecent; lewd 2. abominable; disgusting. Libel is defined as: 1. a. defamation by written or printed matter, rather than by spoken words; b. the crime of publishing such matter. “Fighting words” are considered to be any words used intentionally to incite violence.
Let’s take each one of these separately, beginning with obscenity. Leaving aside the rather damning detail that obscenity is much more a matter of personal taste than public opinion, let’s focus on the experiential disparity that seems to exist between saying and hearing a so-called obscene word. Everybody knows that he or she can say the word fuck, for instance, over and over and over again inside his or her own head and not feel any of the deleterious effects of the obscenity. Spoken out loud, however, is a different story. Why is this—what makes auditory obscenity so much more explosive than the unspoken sort? First we have to ask if obscenity is innate or idiosyncratic. If it’s idiosyncratic, is not its power to offend endemic to the listener and therefore a matter of choice, no more an incontrovertible fact than, say, the obscenity of somebody having a different favorite color than you? Conversely, if obscenity were innate and not conjured by the imagination, then wouldn’t it still be imperative that we learn to live with it, just as we have had to do with the mosquito, inclement weather and bad luck? Wouldn’t our supersensitivity to obscenity demand, over time, that we develop a mental callus against the steady erosion of our peace of mind? After all, what would be the point in wanting to willingly make the choice to beat the absolute crap out of our own well-being with a toxic concept concocted specifically to be acerbic?
Equally ambiguous are the definitions for the remaining two forms of unprotected speech, libel and fighting words, neither of which are precise or specific enough to avoid being misconstrued one way or another. Specifically, because the definitions for defamation and inciting derive their meaning from how a listener interprets them as opposed to how a speaker enunciates them, then there can never be any First Amendment protection for any speech, at least not so long as the burden of elucidation lies much more with the recipient of the speech or obscenity, than the one producing the speech or obscenity.
The punch line:
Zeeker had gone to Pennebaker’s Drugstore, for me in fact, to get Kimble Hoffbeck either a box of chocolates or a fistful of lousy flowers, something to show her that I was sorry about braining her with a joke that wasn’t even that funny. I told Zeeker that I would’ve gone myself, but my bike was still in the shop from crashing into that goddamn chicken that had gotten out of the Kwoong’s backyard coop a week earlier. “What’s the matter with you Koreans?” I asked Dae-Ho the day after the accident in study hall. “No. 1 rule when moving to another country: learn the fucking language!” When he reminded me that we were talking about a chicken and that the chicken had been born in Mayetta, N.J., and that, irrespective of where the chicken was from, screaming Oh the humanity! at anything standing in the middle of the road was not exactly the clearest instruction for it to get out of the way. I accused him of arguing semantics with me and chalked it up to a language barrier.
Anyway, the gift for Kimble Hoffbeck was what I’d plea-bargained down from a suspension, which was by no means a difficult feat when it came to my middle school. Achilles Grammatico, for example, was once caught masturbating in the driving simulator in Drivers’ Ed behind Tiffany Glenn, and rather than getting suspended, he simply had his Italian horn necklace confiscated and was moved from the standard transmission simulator to one of the automatic transmission simulators, where it would be easier for him to meet the both hands on the wheel requirement. He was also made to sit behind Casper Bruno, who smelled strongly of acne medication and had a cowlick that could turn your stomach. Consequently, all of Tiffany Glenn’s prior citations for speeding on the simulator were forgiven as she set down the long, hard road toward learning how to look into her side view mirror without dry heaving.
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