Jostling about in a big public space: Multitudes of divergent communities

It started with an essay about artistic freedom.

During the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of my artist friends and I were embroiled in the fight for artistic freedom. Faced with battles over censorship, federal funding, and what was deemed obscene, immoral, or offensive, we fought for an individual artist’s right to free expression. We held these as fundamental rights of an individual in the public arena. We understood artistic expression as a form of speech, speech that was protected by the First Amendment. Reflecting back on the fights of thirty years ago also calls to mind today’s debates around what has been dubbed “cancel culture.”

One day in early 1991 in the midst of the Culture Wars, I hunkered down to edit an essay titled “Artistic Freedom” by Bruce Sievers, scholar of civil society and, at the time, director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund. I’d just been contracted by an association of arts funders, Grantmakers in the Arts, to be co-editor of its publication. I continued in this role for nearly twenty years, but this was the first article in the first issue I worked on.

Especially coming when it did, the essay engaged me in complicated ideas closely related to my activism. It also presented me with a tangle of ideas that were hard to unravel then and, one notion in particular is a puzzle that, thirty years later, challenges me still. Even though it remains unresolved, I suspect that this intransigent puzzle may among other things offer a response to the cancel culture debates.

In his essay, Sievers reported on a GIA-sponsored symposium held in December 1990 based on controversies surrounding freedom of expression in the arts. A central goal of the gathering was to understand the legal and conceptual foundations of the argument defending artistic freedom. The search for a coherent argument, Sievers said, is filled with ambiguity. “Ambiguities about freedom of expression in the arts mirror deeper ambiguities about the nature of free speech and its historical role in the legal and political life of the United States.”

I’ve come to recognize one of these ambiguities in the often-difficult balance between the right of one person to speak and the right of another not to be targeted by harmful speech. One can damage the rights of the other. Legal scholar (later to become dean of the Yale Law School) and symposium speaker Robert C. Post explained that the modern theory of First Amendment protection for threatening or outrageous speech “only began to be developed in the 1930s and 40s as the Supreme Court grappled with the contradictions between protecting the public arena of free speech and protecting individuals from slander and verbal assault.”

A second complicated idea in all this might be described this way: The existence of a neutral public space for discourse is necessary for the exercise of free speech and also gives the speech meaning by giving it an audience. But the value of holding that space open also has to be defended. And that very defense might suspend someone else’s freedom of speech, someone, for instance, intent on closing down the neutral public space through coercive or irrational means.

Both of these ideas required me to hold two competing values in mind without insisting that only one is true. That’s fine. Life is full of ambiguities. I can handle that.

But then he brought up communities.

Buried in Sievers’ arguments is the thirty-year-old conundrum I’ve wrestled since 1991. It came up for me when he introduced “community” into the picture. My experience in the Culture Wars had established a mental framework for the debate around artistic freedom that consisted essentially of two parts, or two “sides” – the individual artist and the public arena, that is, the rights of individuals within the larger society. References to community complicated my framework. “Community” seemed both larger than an individual and smaller than the whole society.

Community was first mentioned in the essay when Sievers drew from Robert Post’s brief history of Anglo-American law and its control of harmful speech – that is, defamation, blasphemy, sedition, and obscenity. This control, Post said, served specific purposes. For one, “it acknowledged and protected community norms of responsible speech (norms that made a particular community possible), thus supporting a vision of community life.”

“Wait just a minute!” I thought. Particular community? What does that mean? The next passage reinforced my confusion and also triggered my curiosity. (Italicized emphasis is mine.) Post argued that modern First Amendment theory…

“…developed a delicate balance between the principle of preserving public space in which public opinion essential to a democratic society can be freely molded and the opposing principle of defending independent communities in which values also essential to a democratic society (such as respect for the individual) can be cultivated. First Amendment protection of a neutral public space acknowledges the peculiarly U.S. experience of many coexisting communities and allows for the proliferation of ‘multitudes of divergent communities.’ It safeguards a sort of marketplace of ideas among these communities.”

“Multitudes of divergent communities” jostling about in a big neutral public space struck me as a powerful image. I immediately liked the idea of defined clusters of people – that is, communities defined by choice, chance, or coercion – each molding their own particular set of values and practices. And I liked the idea of the public space as one where each community tries to influence or change the opinions and ways of others.

Over the years, I’ve attempted to incorporate “the multitudes of divergent communities” into a mental framework that previously included only individuals and the public. I’ve asked many questions of these notions, most of which I haven’t answered with much satisfaction.

In a neutral public space full of coexisting and divergent communities, what happens to the public space when minds and actions are changed? How is the public space changed? Can, or how can it remain open to all communities? What is “neutrality” anyway, is it even real? What happens when change is coerced or destructive? Do we even have a multitude of divergent communities at this point? And what do we mean today by “community” when we live in a physical world that is dependent on a digital world with a fundamentally changed understanding of public space, in “public” arenas that are owned by large corporations?

Thinking back to the beginning of this train of thought, where is an individual and an individual artist’s expression in this picture? What dynamic goes on among individuals inside a particular community? Does a community allow for a parallel proliferation of the divergent ideas of many different individuals? Does the existence of many different communities offer an individual the chance to move from one community to another? Or to belong to more than one at the same time? What happens to an individual alone in the public arena outside any particular community? Where does that individual belong?

Somewhere in the argument for the value of multitudes of co-existing communities might lie a response to the cancel culture debates, though not a resolution of them (homogeneity is not the goal). Could understanding the value of this multiplicity help us learn to accept the ambiguity and challenge of living among communities with different experiences, different values and practices? Do we need the debates and discomfort to allow minds and hearts to change and to give us the will to create a better-functioning democratic society?

Satisfying answers to these questions still elude me. Simply posing them is about as far as I can go right now. Clearly the conundrum continues, getting both a little more complicated and a little more potent all the time.

References

  • The essay, “Artistic Freedom,” is in the GIA Newsletter, Volume 2,1 and can be downloaded here.
  • A brief bio for Bruce Sievers is here.

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