The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that the distribution of films or videos depicting actual animal cruelty is a protected form of free speech. The case at issue was prompted in part by a video showing a sexy model wearing pointy high heeled shoes walking on live kittens and stabbing them with her heels.
The court found the video repulsive, but voted 8-1 (Justice Alito dissenting) to allow such videos, saying the law preventing their sale was overly broad. In a free society, their argument goes, it is better to suffer the degradation of repulsive material than to risk limiting it and having to make subjective judgments as to what is acceptable and what is not. This notion of subjective judgment is located in opposition to the objective absolute of what constitutes a right. Absolute right is declared an objective standard, and such right trumps all other legal argument.
What’s lost in the adoption of right as an objective standard is the complexity of nuanced circumstances and the benefit of deep exploration of issues from a moral, societal and interpersonal perspective. Such an exploration is unquestionably difficult and complex, and thus the history of jurisprudence over the past 50 years has shown a swing towards decisions based upon absolute rights, an approach that has relieved the courts of dealing with complexity. Why discuss the effect of degrading material on children, adults or society as a whole when the entire matter can be set aside in favor of determining absolute right? Justice now requires the application of law as an absolute standard leaving judges with little room to adjust sentences or decisions based on subjective considerations. Shakespeare’s famous observation no longer applies; today the quality of mercy is strained.
If anything, this inclination towards the absolute supremacy of rights has grown stronger as the decades have passed. Highly complex issues, such as gun sales and ownership, abortion, and animal cruelty are resolved as a matter of right. Effects on society are no longer a primary issue; decisions revolve around rights.
To what level must degradation fall before we cry foul? On TV’s “Caught on Camera” we are witness to surveillance cameras documenting kitchen staff spitting on plates of food to be served to customers, and far worse. This voyeuristic activity glorifies barbaric behavior for entertainment; big money is to be made by appealing to the very worst in people.
The ancient Roman masses were entertained by grisly death in the coliseum. This “bread and circus” was a distraction from the absolute imposition of the empire and the elimination of the Roman republic. Such appeals to our dark side – anger, fear, lust, hatred, blame and jealousy – is a tried and true tactic employed by those wishing to consolidate wealth and power. Absolute standards of law and fixed sentences meted out to the poor are unevenly applied to the wealthy. Herein is revealed the hypocrisy of justice based on rights alone. Money trumps everything.
Society degrades when decency, kindness, and compassion do not endure. When free speech includes an absolute right to make money by inflicting pain and suffering on the powerless and distributing it through video to others, our aspiration for freedom becomes perverted, declines to its lowest common denominator, and all of us, tortured kitten by tortured kitten, slowly descend to the level of barbarians.