Kathy Griffin and the Liberal Arts

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The day after the photograph of Cathy Griffin holding Donald Trump’s severed head appeared online, I taught the image in my early American history course. Students universally found the image disturbing and most thought that Griffin should not have created it. But they agreed that Griffin had engaged in constitutionally protected speech.

Part of the problem with Griffin’s image was that students found it neither funny nor an effective social commentary. In fact, they were unable to identify any message being communicated except for “I want to be noticed and have people talking about me.” This conversation took place before Griffin’s explanation that she was referencing Trump’s August 2015 comment that Megan Kelly had “blood coming out of her whatever.” I do not know if my students would be convinced with this explanation, but I know that I am not; especially because Trump’s comment was made almost two years before Griffin’s photo was posted. Furthermore, because Griffin did not initially offer this explanation, it came across more of an afterthought to justify a lapse of judgement.

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In addition to showing Griffin’s photograph, I also taught a meme that challenged Republicans who said nothing about images showing violence to Barack Obama. My students agreed that, like the Griffin photograph, the Obama images were distasteful examples of constitutionally protected speech. Their problem with the meme was that it implied that Griffin’s actions were justifiable because conservatives made similar images featuring Obama. As one student commented, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

My students’ reactions to the Griffin photograph were based on the skills learned as part of a liberal arts curriculum. They carefully analyzed the image understanding that the issues involved were so complex that a nuanced response that transcended partisan politics was required.

Although there was a consensus that Griffin’s photograph was both inappropriate and constitutionally protected, I suspect that the consensus would have broken down had we dealt with the consequences of her speech. Disagreement in the liberal arts classroom is to be expected because the goal of the liberal arts is to advance critical thinking; not to promote uniformity. Promoting uniformity is the province of those who prefer an ignorant electorate; something that is the antithesis of a liberal arts education.

Unfortunately, not all liberals effectively practice liberal arts skills such as critical thinking. Griffin’s decision to hold up Trump’s severed head is a perfect example. While some—like my students—appropriately defended her right to create the image, we can also ask, “What was she thinking?” and then conclude, “I guess she wasn’t.”

Extremism is not confined to only one political party or social group. Whatever their politics, extremists benefit from ignorance of the liberal arts. People who are content with their ignorance or remain willfully ignorant are easy to control. Think of Rush Limbaugh’s ditto heads who unquestionably accept his often ill-informed diatribes. Once people will accept anything you say, you can comfortably say anything knowing that—regardless of the extremity of your position—it will be supported. Uncritical support is an ideal breeding ground for those who promote a totalitarian agenda.

When Thomas Gray ends his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” with the following three lines,

Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.

he recognizes that the blissful state of the young men he is observing is based on delusion; a delusion that will eventually end as they face the realities of life. Although studying the liberal arts does complicate the ability to stay blissfully ignorant, being able to deal with complexities is vital for a democratic society. It also allows us to sustain compassion for those who suffer from blissful ignorance or a lack of thought as to the impact and consequences of their actions.

When someone commented in social media that “I honestly feel bad for her. She messed up yea but now her life is basically ruined,” he took a non-partisan position in which he recognized Griffin’s humanity and the difficult situation in which she finds herself. Recognizing humanity helps prevent a discussion of issues to degenerate into ad hominem attacks on individuals and groups. Regardless of one’s position on the appropriateness of Griffin holding up Trump’s severed head, we should have compassion for her in much the same way we should have compassion for Trump.

    –Steven L. Berg, PhD


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