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19 May 2011

The Kitschification of Free Speech

The kitschification of free speech is the reduction of a lofty idea to a grotesque form that appeals to those whose interests consist only of cliché phrases, trite expressions and 10 second dog whistle soundbites. Kitschified speech is the trivialization of important social and political issues. It is an intentionally offensive expression masquerading as free speech and hiding behind a façade of communication of ideas. Kitschified speech is fast becoming the new normal of free speech because it appeals to society’s lowest common denominator. Kitschified speech has mass appeal and is sold to the masses. There is no compelling message, no real appeal to social consciousness and little value except for the profit tee shirt sellers enjoy. Kitschified speech is the distorted reflection of free speech as seen in a fun house mirror.
If free speech is to mean anything we must learn to recognize true expression from the distorted for-profit kitsch-speech.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote about the difficulty of defining “speech” in the landmark First Amendment case Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964). In his concurring opinion regarding the definition of “obscenity,” Justice Stewart wrote:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it . . .
    The invaluable freedom to express ideas without the fear of retaliation by governments, groups or individuals has become a tacky banner carried forth by those who seek only to capitalize on the issue du jour. The recent flood of tee shirt designs that exploit the death of Osama bin Laden is an excellent example of the kistchification of free speech – insensitive, tacky, offensive, mass marketed kitsch. It is the difference between a picture of Elvis Presley or poker playing dogs on black velvet and a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. It is sometimes hard to define, but you know it when you see it.


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