Contrarian: Worst Amendment

Freedom of speech now means there’s always somebody trying to bring you down.

Dear Sirs:

I’m writing to complain about Penn president Amy Gutmann’s recent Halloween photos, in which she posed with a young woman dressed as a sexy cat. Every year, cat sex results in millions of unwanted kittens. Why does Miss Gutmann want cats to starve? Should an Ivy League school have a cat starver as president? Won’t somebody please THINK OF THE KITTENS?

That’s the first draft of a letter I plan to send to the administration of the University of Pennsylvania, because apparently it is now in vogue to complain about absolutely anything. For instance: On Halloween night, University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann posed with about 700 different students for photographs, including one young man dressed as a terrorist. The photo appeared on websites, and then on news services, and then various letters to local papers and some editorials called for Gutmann to resign.

Resign. There are people who think she should resign one of the top positions in academia for standing next to a guy, for a few seconds, whose name she probably didn’t even know, whose costume she likely didn’t give so much as a glance. At a party. The next thing you know, an esteemed academic with impeccable credentials was forced to issue a statement saying, in effect, that she did not support terrorism.

Is that silly enough? Then how about this: A national nursing group is “outraged” that waitresses at a restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill in Tempe, Arizona, wear sexy nurse’s outfits, claiming that this demeans the profession of nursing. They are apparently concerned that a young woman with cleavage and a miniskirt and a little hat with a red cross on it, who is asking for a drink order, might be mistaken for a health-care professional. Or this: Just before the Gutmann fiasco, at a Halloween party far, far away, comedian Bill Maher dressed as recently deceased TV personality Steve Irwin. Irwin had been killed by a stingray about two months before, and Maher was decked out in Irwin’s trademark khaki shirt, with a stingray barb protruding from a red blotch on his chest. Maher was skewered on blogs and in editorials by people who felt that Irwin, a man who made millions of dollars leaping on the backs of man-­eating crocodiles and poking venomous snakes, was beyond reproach, the venerable Walter Cronkite of reptile baiting.

What’s going on with all this complaining? “This offends me” is no longer a reaction to a headline. We have come to believe it should be the headline itself. Educated in schools that value student self-esteem above math and grammar, and released into a consumer society where we’re told the customer is always right, we’ve become so important in our own minds that we now think our reactions to news are newsworthy, and should be taken quite seriously. We have fixated on the democratic ideal that everyone has a voice, and pay no attention to whether the voices are sensible or shrill. Armed only with a keyboard, a culturally honed ability to whine all day, and a boatload of inexplicable self-regard, we can now demand the end of someone’s career, the closing of businesses, or the cancellation of TV shows based purely on personal whim.

But it’s just complaining. How could this be bad? Well, consider another recent case, that of George Annas. Annas is a bioethics professor from Boston University who gave a talk on September 28th at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Philadelphia. His speech must have offended someone, because that someone wrote an anonymous letter to the Department of Veteran Affairs asking how “open disagreement” with the Bush administration could be tolerated in a federal facility in “a time of war.” ­Hyper-­sensitive officials at the VA then decided to take over the mailings for future lectures, and the next one in the series was completely unadvertised and poorly attended.

So someone complains when an ETHICS professor, in a speech whose title contained the word “GUANTANAMO,” has negative things to say about the administration. What was the letter-writer expecting? Praise for the administration’s humanitarian policies? Has he turned on a TV or opened a newspaper in the past couple of years? Regardless, the hospital gets so nervous about complaints that it stops advertising a program designed to push quality health care. Good thing somebody put a stop to that, eh? The last thing we need in a time of war is for a hospital that treats the war’s wounded to have a free exchange of information about how best to do it.

But these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. The real danger lies in the misuse of the democratic right to complain. If you start complaining about everything that offends you, your wolf-crying will make genuine complaints land on deaf ears. If there is enough carrying on about Amy Gutmann’s photographs, or a bioethics professor who has political opinions, then complaints about genocide in Africa, or the end of the world as we know it due to global warming, will be just more voices in the din. Which is exactly where things now seem to stand.

So let’s ask some questions about what makes a complaint legitimate.

Question one: Without your complaint, will the problem get worse? This definitely applies to Darfur and global warming, but does it apply to Gutmann’s photos? If no one had said anything, would Amy Gutmann have seen that as an opportunity to start funneling cash to Osama bin Laden? My guess is no.

Question two: Is it a crime? We actually have an entire system in place to determine whether or not something is appropriate, and millions of professional, highly educated people use this system every day. It’s called law. Thus, Annas’s VA speech is protected from overzealous complaints. For that matter, it’s also protected by the First Amendment. On the other hand, Phillies pitcher Brett Myers hitting his wife in the face on a public street definitely qualifies for a complaint or two. Who knows, this law thing might actually work as a guideline for determining whether or not someone has done something wrong. Caveat: doesn’t apply to marijuana use.

Question three: Do you have a sense of humor? Do you spend a lot of time writing angry letters to businesses you frequent? Have you ever used the phrase “Hey, get off my lawn”? Do you chuckle at the inane asides local news anchors make? If so, you might be suffering from a condition called “humorlessness.” Ask a comedian if complaining is right for you.

That’s it. Three easy questions. If you answered yes to at least two of these three questions, perhaps your complaint is valid. If not, put the newspaper down and back away from the computer. Please.

Now I’m going to sit back and see how many people write in to complain that I’ve made light of the problem of starving cats.

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