Tag Archives: Roger W. Smith It All Depends on Where You Draw the Line

“it all depends on where you draw the line”


My high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe, was a wonderful teacher and a learned man in the humanities. He also was equipped with practical knowledge and wisdom, the sort that could be applied to everyday affairs and issues.

The topic of censorship once came up in class. Mr. Tighe said, “When arguments of censorship arise, it always comes down to the question: where you draw the line?” He continued in this vein. He asked the class, “Do you think I should be allowed to sell French postcards in the school parking lot?” We all said no. “Well then,” Mr. Tighe said, “that proves my point.”

I was thinking recently about Mr. Tighe’s observation, which I never forgot, and its implications — both in the “narrow” sense (how does it apply to issues of censorship and obscenity?) and in the “wider” sense of how it might apply in general to controversies where one side or the other might say, “This is beyond the pale. This goes too far.”



Some examples.

In a previous post of mine

“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”

“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”

I stated that, in my opinion, statutes honoring heroes of the Confederacy should not be taken down. A reader of the post commented: “There’s a big difference between Robert E. Lee, who fought to preserve slavery and who fought to tear this country apart, and the founding fathers who created our government. Should statues of Hitler and Nazi monuments be preserved because they are part of history? [italics added]”

That comment (the second, italicized sentence, not the first) stopped me in my tracks. It made me think: Could it be that I am opposed to taking down MOST statues, but that here are some exceptions, some historical figures (Hitler, Stalin, etc.), who were so bad — notwithstanding my stated point of view, in variance with it, or perhaps one might say, despite it — that they should not be honored with statues?

Similarly, in my post

“is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?”


I noted that there were some hot button issues — ones that seem to never get resolved — that are so contentious and emotionally charged that “public agreement” on them seems impossible. For example: capital punishment; abortion; hawks vs. doves. The real test, the hard part, I wrote, comes “when one is dealing with actualities and specific cases.” For example: I am against capital punishment, but when I saw and read news items about beheadings of hostages by ISIS terrorists, I felt that I would like to see the executioners publicly beheaded. Charles Manson died a few weeks ago. I believe in the Christian doctrine of forgiveness, but I was glad to see him dead.

And so on.



What about censorship? Obscenity? Pornography? Which my English teacher was talking about.

What once was considered obscene — and was verboten legally — is now common. Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer — all of them classics — were once forbidden books. What ever happened to censorship (on obscenity grounds) of literature? It doesn’t exist any more.

Sexually explicit films and magazines that would be considered legally obscene when I was growing up seem tame and would bother no one now. Pornography is available on the Internet for free now — to suit every market niche and appeal to every prurient taste.

So, the “foul lines” keep being widened for obscenity issues.



What about the recent spate of reported sexual offenses (most of them from past years) against men? How does Donald Trump compare with Bill Clinton in this regard, or vice versa? Are Al Franken’s and Garrison Keillor’s transgressions as serious as were Harvey Weinstein’s and (allegedly) Roy Moore’s? Charlie Rose? Matt Lauer? (See more on this below.)



The bottom line, it seems to me, is that when push comes to shove — in the final analysis — judgments are made both: (1) according to principles people feel compelled to adhere to; and (2) according to the degree of outrage or indignation they do or do not feel. Perhaps this is obvious. In making judgments, one takes into account both the law as one construes it (ranging from the legislative to codes of ethics and religion) and one’s gut reactions.

I guess what I am trying to say is that, when considering grave issues, people believe they are adhering to firmly held principles. But, opinions can and do shift over time, according to what people are willing to tolerate. Just as Mr. Tighe said.

Take the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for example. Some legislators and many anti-Clinton people (including some, like myself, who always vote Democratic) felt that Clinton, having lied under oath, should have been impeached on principle and as a matter of law. Others were willing to give him a pass.



What about the wave of sexual assault and harassment allegations now sweeping the country in tidal wave fashion (mentioned above)?

Standards are shifting, that’s for sure.

But, there seems to be much confusion. Are distinctions being made, should they, according to circumstances, gravity of offense — e.g. Al Franken and Garson Keilor, say, versus Harvey Weinstein?

Is it now the unwritten law that any evidence of inappropriate sexual behavior, any improper or unasked-for advances, are henceforth forbidden, and that all cases will be punished with equal severity?

There was a good column in The Washington Post recently that addresses these issues (and, for readers of this post from overseas who may not be familiar with the current controversy, provides an overview):

“So what should happen to Al Franken?”

by Ruth Marcus

The Washington Post

November 17, 2017


All kinds of issues seem to be getting entangled here: moral principles; feminist issues; the law, which is often not clear (for instance, where and when was the offense committed? was it a state or federal crime? does the statute of limitations apply?); and so on. Then, what seems reprehensible to some may seem excusable to others. Pretty much everyone agrees that pedophilia is the worst sort of crime and is repugnant. But, were Roy Moore’s alleged transgressions those of a pedophile?


“Roy Moore is not a pedophile”

by Rachel Hope Cleves and Nicholas L. Syrett

The Washington Post

November 19, 2017


It matters, because when we are debating issues like these about which people feel so strongly, hysteria can prevail. Terms are thrown around and accusations are made loosely. Clear headedness and dispassionate judgments tend not to be welcomed or in evidence.

Which is not to say that people shouldn’t feel outrage. I myself found that I loathed Moore: his past actions, his denials, his attempts to impugn his accusers.

But, here’s a question worth pondering. Sexual harassment in the US — in the workplace, in the media, in academia — as the recent allegations show, is nothing new. Quite a few of the victimized women have indicated that complaints they made in the past were ignored. But, now, when an allegation is made against Garrison Keillor or a WNYC talk show host, they are immediately fired and their shows are canceled, despite their having disputed allegations or denied them. Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine is accused of predatory sexual behavior with minors, and he is immediately fired by the opera’s board of directors before an investigation which the board had just commenced is completed.

So, how are the swift actions by corporate boards and peremptory firings accounted for? Apparently, Mr. Tighe’s line has shifted, very fast. But, I wonder — in the case of the firings, do the boards of corporations and media and cultural organizations really care that much about the victims, or even feel outrage? I think what they care about most is staying ahead of the curve of public opinion, and making sure that they are not seen to be tolerating such behavior, lest it have a negative impact on sales, attendance, viewership, and the like.

If they really cared that much about the issues, and the victims, why were complaints routinely ignored in the past, until the very recent past, before public opinion shifted? And, if what we are talking about is criminal behavior, why not let the law run its course?

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017




See also:

“When #MeToo Goes Too Far”

by Bret Stephens

The New York Times

December 20, 2017