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JonnyCeltics's avatar

Any advice on teaching censorship and obscenity in an undergraduate class?

Asked by JonnyCeltics (2664 points ) November 26th, 2012

My main concern is how to approach censorship as it relates to topics like hate speech, nudity/art, and religion.

I will be relating it to the first amendment, of course, and then relating it to specific examples. Then, over the last few weeks of class, they are required to present on their own.

I would like for my class to be able to discuss words like “nigger” and look at examples of Maplethorpe, etc. Do you have suggestions in terms of how to present this? Many of my students are minority students.

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17 Answers

wundayatta's avatar

I think it would help to frame the discussion in the beginning. To tell people we are going to be using hot button words and that we want to be able to discuss them without getting angry. To do this, we need to listen to each other. We need to provide reasons for our word choices. We need to be talking about the subject, and not about each other. If we find something to be insulting, we say that by telling why we felt that way. We do not accuse the other person of an insult.

Then you practice a little. But if you train them how to have a civilized discussion, you can discuss the most sensitive things. You could even develop a list of hot button topics as a group. Maybe you would want to have a special symbol for people to hold up when they are talking about such as topic as a reminder to others to listen and not be insulted.

Just off the top of my head. I’m sure others will have better ideas.

bolwerk's avatar

You might have more of an effect if you just avoid saying words like “nigger” unless absolutely necessary. Many people, particularly prigs, are incapable of separating content from message, and message from context. No point in getting bogged down when you don’t have to.

zenvelo's avatar

I like what @wundayatta said. I’d even suggest a session or two on how someone can use an otherwise insulting word, and also that there is no carte blanche to use hate speech.

One way to frame it from the beginning is the American Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois that the ACLU defended as a free speech issue.

LostInParadise's avatar

I also go along with what @wundayatta said. For a good example of how to involve students in discussing potentially sensitive material, I recommend watching some of the videos from the justice course given by Michael Sandel at Harvard. The material is of interest in itself, but I was also impressed by how he presented his lectures in such a way as to involve the class and to look at different points of view.

glacial's avatar

If you are going to be discussing artists (like Robert Mapplethorpe – and note that there are three Ps in there), be sure to learn something about the works you will show, and have something meaningful to say about them. It is all to easy to flash a photograph on a screen, and say that it’s controversial – but the students won’t understand why people fought for his work unless you explain its importance.

Dutchess_III's avatar

You have to be careful not to inject your own “opinion” into the topics, no matter how obviously disgusting some things are. But….then again, I teach HS. The rules are different for college, I’m sure.
May I ask what brought this topic up as it relates to your classroom?

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@Dutchess_III We are examining the intersection of the 1st Amendment and media…censorship/obscenity in forms.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Interesting! Would you mind sharing the lesson with me?

bookish1's avatar

Have you thought of mentioning the obscenity trial of Naked Lunch, and Norman Mailer’s defense of the work as art?

I’ve never taught a class specifically on obscenity or censorship, but one thing I can suggest from experience is that if you expect some of the youngins are going to want to use certain words for attention, or just because they can, you can upstage them by using them yourself, first.

Good luck @JonnyCeltics. Let us know how you end up teaching this and how it goes!

PhiNotPi's avatar

Well, one thing that is important is to discuss that different forms of censorship can be very different in terms of the motives of the censors. Art censorship is not the same as hate speech censorship, which is not censorship of information / the press, which is different from nudity censorship.

linguaphile's avatar

To add to the excellent suggestions above…

I would ask the students to bring in things they find obscene and explain what exactly it is they find offensive and explore why. I’d ask them to research the history of why it’s offensive—like if it was a swastika, why exactly is it offensive? What did it mean before it came to represent Nazi’s? Is it the swastika that is offensive, or the Nazis, or both?

I’d explore the denotation and connotations of many words like obscene, offensive, provoking, rights, comfort, ethics, militant, political correct, terrorist vs. freedom fighter— they could get to where they recognize that the connotations carry the weigh, not the denotations. I have had this discussion before and lead students to the concept that offensiveness is personal—it can be cultural (like ni—er) but on the most part, it is personal, so the question could be “it is offensive to whom?”

Who decides what’s offensive? The media or the people? Can and do the media create and feed a frenzy where a group feels insulted? Would the group be insulted without the media? It’s like when teenagers get an audience and they act more snarky with friends looking on than they do alone—so is it groupthink or an authentic moral issue when someone feels offended?

There’s also an opportunity to discuss ethics—how far is too far, and is there a “too far?” Westboro Baptist? PETA? ActUp? Operation Rescue? Dr. Kevorkian? When and why do the rights of a few supersede the rights of the majority? Or is it the comfort of a few supersedes the comfort of the majority? The KKK wants to picket—it’s their right but to what extent? Are the “extents” more allowable for one group and less for another (i.e. Westboro has been allowed to go quite far, while other groups were shut down much faster)

As a teacher, when I addressed topics like this, I asked the students a lot of questions. On the first day, I did make a point of saying that some things might feel offensive, but to keep in mind this is for discussion’s sake and is nothing personal. I also warned them that I was an excellent devil’s advocate and could switch sides easy as you please to make a point.

I’d ask them to really, really think their thoughts through and be able to discuss and sustain, not just spout, their opinions. I also love the quote “I don’t have to be wrong for you to be right, and you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.” from this amazing article.

I’d also bring up the Negro Bill Canyon debate. People are freaking out over ‘Negro’ and want the canyon name changed to the William Grandstaff Canyon. The NAACP’s position is ‘negro’ is okay, so it’s a non-issue, but white people have embarked on a crusade. I’d ask the student whose fight it is? Is it more offensive that the canyon’s named Negro Bill or that the white people are ignoring NAACP’s position? That’s a very relevant discussion for now. What’s offensive in 1830 and what’s offensive now are not the same—so obscenity is an extremely cultural construct.

Have fun!! I’m envious—I love teaching these topics!!!

linguaphile's avatar

Another idea… the Rodney King incident was on video, but only a small portion was shown on TV. This often happens with the media—only incendiary portions are shown. Is that ethical? Where’s the line between marketing and ethics? Who’s accountable when a mob breaks out, burns and loots stores because the media fanned fires? Is it their responsibility to worry about that?

WyCnet's avatar

Additionally, if you want to get really deep then a shot at Morality from the perspective of self-censorship may prove instrumental in covering many diverse bases.

Dutchess_III's avatar

You guys are amazing…

PhiNotPi's avatar

Also, look up the Tiananmen Square protests and the censorship that happened afterwards, as this gives a very good example of censorship of the press to protect a government’s good image. In China, it is not possible to locate any public information on that event, such as on the Internet and news agencies.

You might also ask the question of when a government should and shouldn’t censor information to protect national security and the safety of its own citizens. When does a government go too far and start suppressing citizens instead of protecting them?

bookish1's avatar

@PhiNotPi : Excellent example. Also, on a similar note…. the government cover-up of the SARS epidemic. (This will be ancient history to them, as will Tiananmen).

JonnyCeltics's avatar

These are all wonderful examples. I teach a media course, so these lesson were focused on the intersection of media and the first amendment=censorship. We reviewed some John Stuart Mill, the 1st amendment and eventually got into George Carlin (FCC + obscenity/indecency) and applied some other examples (Piss Christ, e.g.). We even got into censorship. In the end, they each research and did a presentation on a topic of their choosing (and my approval). These ranged from naked v. nude, to Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier to even the CCA (comics). Thanks for all the guidance Flutherites :)

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