In the era of faux internet outrage, the word “backlash” has largely lost its meaning. It does, however, probably fit the bill for describing what comedian Kathy Griffin is experiencing in the wake of her participation in a gory anti-Trump photo shoot with celebrity shock-photographer Tyler Shields (the image has since been taken down). The shot included an image of Griffin holding a bloody likeness of Trump’s severed head which Griffin posted to Twitter with the caption, “there was blood coming out of his eyes, blood coming out of his whatever…”
The reaction against the image has, unsurprisingly, been swift and diverse. When Donald Trump, Jr., Chelsea Clinton, Rosie O’Donnell and Anderson Cooper all a) agree and b) feel the need to say so publicly, you might have what could be referred to as a universal sentiment. Kathy Griffin has apologized. Tyler Shields has not.
When so many other norms are being violated, why hang on to this one?
But in the frenzy to proclaim the only correct opinion, we have lost the opportunity for an extremely important conversation. For, despite a vague Secret Service tweet (why is this all happening on Twitter? O tempora, o mores!) and plenty of armchair lawyering from people who barely made it out of high school civics, let alone law school, legal experts uniformly agree that the photograph does not constitute a threat against the president in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 871. Instead of being a Class E felony, the picture is instead a form of Constitutionally protected political speech. And, at least for now, such speech can be offensive, in poor taste, vile, you name the adjective.
Whatever limits that have existed on such speech in the United States have largely been by convention. Not taking pictures of comedians holding a look-alike of the sitting president’s head was only ever just a norm of our democracy, a community standard for the republic. And so the question must become, in a moment when so many other of our norms are being violated, why hang on to this one? Why should we cling to the conventions that prevent the most shocking and offensive kinds of political speech, when every other barrier we have set up against the shocking and offensive tumbles down around us?
The fact is that we should not. Before last year’s tailspin, it was more dangerous to permit photos depicting a beheaded president than to condemn them. Today the opposite is true. Kathy Griffin is a comedian who has largely made her career mocking celebrities and making Anderson Cooper uncomfortable on New Year’s Eve (and that is not an attack on Griffin; she is the best at what she does). Somehow Kathy Griffin is being held to a higher standard than the President of the United States. We are in a time when a photographer and an entertainer’s provocation of the President meets with more widespread outrage than the President’s insults against one of our closest allies. Never mind that the purpose of art is to provoke and the purpose of a president in his role as chief diplomat is to pacify.
We need to create the right kinds of “too far” in response to the new abnormal.
We cannot simultaneously declare that Donald Trump and his administration are a unique threat to the republic and then require that the protest levied against them adhere to the standards created for an era of political disagreement, not fundamental instability. While no one, at least not anyone worthy of comment, is advocating violence against the president (or anyone else for that matter; that is a bridge we are all best not to cross), it is absurd to believe that somehow it is Kathy Griffin and Tyler Shields who have crossed the line, not that we are in a land where the lines are very, very different than before. The public outrage against Griffin allows us to pretend that all this is normal and that what is abnormal will be condemned.
We do not need to express outrage at shocking photographs, music and movies. We do not need to uphold our old standards of what is too far. We have already gone too far. The trick now is to create the right kinds of too far in response to the new abnormal. And, frankly, taken apart from Twitter outrage, Shield’s Griffin image is a stunningly brilliant commentary for the moment. It does not just conjure impotent rage against Donald Trump, which would be unhelpful. In fact, Griffin’s caption, an allusion to Trump’s clearly misogynistic attack on a journalist, does not even begin to scratch the surface. A bloody, severed head in our time automatically invokes the Islamic State and its seemingly routine practice beheading just about anyone. But before the Islamic State beheaded its enemies, we beheaded our tyrants: Charles I and Louis XVI met their ends on the wrong side of a blade. If you believe a man to be a tyrant, a portrayal of him beheaded is a historical poignant one. Extreme? Of course. But therein lies its power.
And art must have its power in our new world. The old rules cannot be magically applied only to creative expression and free speech and nothing else. Shields and Griffin went too far and that is a good thing. Griffin was wrong to apologize, and Shields should not. And we should all save our outrage for something much better next time.