CULTURE CLUB: Protecting Sensitivity?

City’s art withdrawal raises important questions

Chuck Twardy

It really makes no difference on what grounds someone complained about nude drawings in City Hall's Bridge Gallery. Religious, moral, sexual harassment, whatever—the drawings were, ipso facto, "offensive" because declared so by one person, cased closed.

The city's recent decision to cave to an employee's complaint and remove several drawings that had appeared harmlessly in its public spaces elsewhere raises obvious free-expression and censorship issues.

Its subsequent decision to backtrack and rehang the pieces mostly puts the debate to rest. Behind these questions, however, lies a more sinister threat, the smothering supervision of Sensitivity. The unacknowledged love-child of Therapy and Entitlement, those household gods of contemporary America, Sensitivity presides over precincts much broader than mere tolerance or empathy. It guards the expectation, presumably backed by law, that no one be forced to suffer discomfort, ever.

You might find this odd among a people perfectly willing to endure millions in their midst who must choose between paying rent and refilling prescriptions, but Sensitivity also covers the freedom from awareness of uncomfortable ironies.

First, let's make it clear, as the artists involved argued, that the nude body is an age-old subject of art that never hurt anybody. If you have a problem seeing a drawing of a nude body, you have a problem, and the rest of us are not compelled to shield you from situations in which you might confront that problem.

Granted, a difference exists between "nude" and "lewd," and by all accounts these pictures did not rise, or sink, to the latter standard. You might argue that one person's threshold is higher or lower than another's, but most of us hew to the benchmark for "hard-core pornography" set by Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio. The justice admitted he could not define it, "but I know it when I see it." Anyway, that's why we have curators, and while some art curators, in truth, seek avenues of outrage, that clearly was not the case here.

But those the city trusted to make judgments like this ran headlong into the wall of principle bureaucracies erect to protect Sensitivity.

It's worth taking a moment to step back and consider that some aspects of the Sensitivity Protectorate have noble intentions behind them. Protecting minorities from the hateful remarks of bigots, for one, and securing women from the leering and jeering of idiotic men. But, as in so many instances, the bureaucracy bricks the window instead of shutting the sash. Thus it matters not that the artist had no intention to insult or to offend, nor that most reasonable people would not discern that intention; it matters only that someone chose to be offended.

Although the safeguarding of minorities and women started as liberal propositions, it's hard to slap a political label on Sensitivity. The advent of campus speech codes, which helped to propel the careers of some conservative commentators, traces directly to liberal orthodoxy among some academics. The early advocates of "free speech" on campuses later decided that campuses needed to clamp down on speech they did not like.

Stanley Fish published a book in the mid-1990s titled There Is No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, which argued that free expression is controlled in any event (yelling "fire" in a theater; compromising national security, etc.) and that it should be. But Fish's point, clarified in a 2003 column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, is that judgment too often is mischaracterized as censorship, making First Amendment heroes of editors who publish anti-Semitic tirades. But this is an argument for editors, or curators, to be wise, not for bureaucracies to set up baroque barriers to protect sensibilities.

It might be argued, too, that while some liberals have become censors, conservatives have fostered an ideal of individual liberty that helps shore up the Sensitivity Protectorate. Let's face it: For the bulk of the boomer generation, all that enthusiasm about "freedom" really boiled down to freedom for me to do whatever I want, which made the cohort ripe picking for conservative political strategists as it aged into suburban comfort. And the idea spread through all corners of the society that the individual enjoys impregnable rights never imagined by any Founding Father.

True, liberalism gave us Therapy, whose root principle is that you are vulnerable, a victim of everything that happens around you, and that you need to be protected from the unpleasant and forgiven for your helpless sins. But conservatism gave us Entitlement, the enshrinement of the individual's needs and wants above those of the collective. Together, they have minted the new right to find offense where you please and to demand that it be extirpated.

A middle ground, between protecting sensibilities from legitimately hurtful expression and guaranteeing the freedom of robust expression, can be found. But bureaucracies have yet to find a way to institutionalize common sense.

Chuck Twardy has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 20 years. His website,, has a forum.

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