Critical Reading: Getting Started
Some books are to be tasted, others to be chewed, and some few to be chewed and digested.
— FRANCIS BACON
In the passage that we quote at the top of this page, Bacon makes at least two good points. One is that books are of varying worth; the second is that a taste of some books may be enough.
But even a book (or an essay) that you will chew and digest is one that you first may want to taste. How can you get a taste—that is, how can you get some sense of a piece of writing before you sit down to read it carefully?
Previewing Even before you read a work, you may have some ideas about it, perhaps because you already know something about the author. You know, for example, that a work by Martin Luther King Jr. will probably deal with civil rights. You know, too, that it will be serious and eloquent. On the other hand, if you pick up an essay by Woody Allen, you will probably expect it to be amusing. It may be serious— Allen has written earnestly about many topics, especially those con- cerned with the media—but it’s your hunch that the essay will be at least somewhat entertaining and probably will not be terribly diffi- cult to understand. In short, a reader who has some knowledge of
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the author probably has some idea of what the writing will be like, and so the reader reads it in a certain mood. Admittedly, most of the authors represented in this book are not widely known, but we give biographical notes that may provide you with some sense of what to expect.
The place of publication may also tell you something about the essay. For instance, the National Review is a conservative jour- nal. If you notice that an essay on affirmative action was published in the National Review, you are probably safe in tentatively assum- ing that the essay will not endorse affirmative action. On the other hand, Ms. Magazine is a liberal publication, and an essay on affir- mative action published in Ms. will probably be an endorsement.
The title of an essay, too, may give you an idea of what to expect. Of course, a title may announce only the subject and not the author’s thesis or point of view (“On Gun Control,” “Should Drugs Be Legal?”), but fairly often it will indicate the thesis too, as in “Give Children the Vote” and “Gay Marriages: Make Them Legal.” Knowing more or less what to expect, you can probably take in some of the major points even on a quick reading.
Skimming: Finding the Thesis Although most of the material in this book is too closely argued to be fully understood by merely skimming, still, skimming can tell you a good deal. Read the first paragraph of an essay carefully because it may announce the author’s thesis (chief point, major claim), and it may give you some sense of how the argument for that thesis will be conducted. (What we call the thesis can also be called the main idea, the point, or even the argument, but in this book we use argument to refer not only to the thesis statement but also to the entire development of the thesis in the essay.) Run your eye over the rest, looking for key expressions that indicate the author’s conclusions, such as “It follows, then, that . . .” Passages of this sort often occur as the first or last sentence in a paragraph. And of course, pay attention to any headings within the text. Finally, pay special attention to the last paragraph because it probably will offer a summary and a brief restatement of the writer’s thesis.
Having skimmed the work, you probably know the author’s thesis, and you may detect the author’s methods—for instance, whether the author supports the thesis chiefly by personal experi- ence, by statistics, or by ridiculing the opposition. You also have a clear idea of the length and some idea of the difficulty of the piece.
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You know, then, whether you can read it carefully now before din- ner or whether you had better put off a careful reading until you have more time.
Reading with a Pencil: Underlining, Highlighting, Annotating Once you have a general idea of the work—not only an idea of its topic and thesis but also a sense of the way in which the thesis is argued—you can then go back and start reading it carefully.
As you read, underline or highlight key passages, and make annotations in the margins (but not in library books, please). Because you are reading actively, or interacting with the text, you will not simply let your eye rove across the page.
• You will underline or highlight what seem to be the chief points, so that later when you review the essay you can eas- ily locate the main passages.
• But don’t overdo a good thing. If you find yourself underlin- ing or highlighting most of a page, you are probably not thinking carefully enough about what the key points are.
• Similarly, your marginal annotations should be brief and selective. They will probably consist of hints or clues, things like “really?,” “doesn’t follow,” “good,” “compare with Jones,” and “check this.”
• In short, in a paragraph you might underline or highlight a key definition, and in the margin you might write “good,” or, “on the other hand,” “?” if you think the definition is fuzzy or wrong.
You are interacting with the text and laying the groundwork for eventually writing your own essay on what you have read.
What you annotate will depend largely on your purpose. If you are reading an essay in order to see the ways in which the writer organizes an argument, you will annotate one sort of thing. If you are reading in order to challenge the thesis, you will anno- tate other things. Here is a passage from an essay entitled “On Racist Speech,” with a student’s rather skeptical, even aggressive annotations. But notice that at least one of the annotations— “Definition of ‘fighting words’”—apparently was made chiefly in order to remind the reader of where an important term appears in the essay. The essay is by Charles R. Lawrence III, a professor of law at Georgetown University. It originally appeared in the Chronicle of
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Higher Education (October 25, 1989), a publication read chiefly by college and university faculty members and administrators.
University officials who have formulated policies to respond to incidents of racial harassment have been characterized in the press as “thought police,” but such policies generally do noth- ing more than impose sanctions against intentional face-to- face insults. When racist speech takes the form of face-to-face insults, catcalls, or other assaultive speech aimed at an individ- ual or small group of persons, it falls directly within the “fight- ing words” exception to First Amendment protection. The Supreme Court has held that words which “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are not protected by the First Amendment.
If the purpose of the First Amendment is to foster the greatest amount of speech, racial insults disserve that purpose. Assaultive racist speech functions as a preemptive strike. The invective is experienced as a blow, not as a proffered idea, and once the blow is struck, it is unlikely that a dialogue will follow. Racial insults are particularly undeserving of First Amendment protection because the perpetrator’s intention is not to discover truth or initiate dialogue but to injure the victim. In most situations, members of minority groups realize that they are likely to lose if they respond to epithets by fight- ing and are forced to remain silent and submissive.
“This; Therefore, That” To arrive at a coherent thought or a coherent series of thoughts that will lead to a reasonable conclusion, a writer has to go through a good deal of preliminary effort. On page 13 we talked about pat- terns of thought that stimulate the generation of specific ideas. The path to sound conclusions involves similar thought patterns that carry forward the arguments presented in the essay:
• While these arguments are convincing, they fail to consider . . .
• While these arguments are convincing, they must also consider . . .
• These arguments, rather than being convincing, instead prove . . .
• While these authors agree, in my opinion . . .
• Although it is often true that . . .
All of these patterns can serve as heuristics or prompts—that is, they can stimulate the creation of ideas.
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Example of such a policy?
? What about sexist speech?
Definition of “fighting words”
Why must speech always seek “to discover truth”?
Really? Probably depends on the individual.
How does he know?
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And if the writer is to convince the reader that the conclusion is sound, the reasoning that led to the conclusion must be set forth in detail, with a good deal of “This; therefore, that”; If this, then that”; and “It might be objected at this point that . . .” The argu- ments in this book require more comment than President Calvin Coolidge provided when his wife, who hadn’t been able to go to church on a Sunday, asked him what the preacher’s sermon was about. “Sin,” he said. His wife persisted: “What did the preacher say about it?” Coolidge’s response: “He was against it.”
But, again, when we say that most of the arguments in this book are presented at length and require careful reading, we do not mean that they are obscure; we mean, rather, that the reader has to take the sentences thoughtfully, one by one. And speaking of one by one, we are reminded of an episode in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass:
“Can you do Addition?” the White Queen asked. “What’s one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?”
“I don’t know,” said Alice. “I lost count.” “She can’t do Addition,” the Red Queen said.
It’s easy enough to add one and one and one and so on, and Alice can, of course, do addition, but not at the pace that the White Queen sets. Fortunately, you can set your own pace in reading the cumulative thinking set forth in the essays we reprint. Skimming won’t work, but slow reading—and thinking about what you are reading—will.
When you first pick up an essay, you may indeed want to skim it, for some of the reasons mentioned on page 31, but sooner or later you have to settle down to read it and to think about it. The effort will be worthwhile. John Locke, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, said,
Reading furnishes the mind with materials of knowledge; it is thinking [that] makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again they will not give us strength and nourishment.
First, Second, and Third Thoughts Suppose you are reading an argument about pornographic pictures. For the present purpose, it doesn’t matter whether the argument
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favors or opposes censorship. As you read the argument, ask your- self whether pornography has been adequately defined. Has the writer taken the trouble to make sure that the reader and the writer are thinking about the same thing? If not, the very topic under discussion has not been adequately fixed; and therefore fur- ther debate over the issue may well be so unclear as to be futile. How, then, ought a topic such as this be defined for effective critical thinking?
It goes without saying that pornography can’t be defined simply as pictures of nude figures or even of nude figures copulating, for such a definition would include not only photographs taken for medical, sociological, and scientific purposes but also some of the world’s great art. Nobody seriously thinks that such images should be called pornography.
Is it enough, then, to say that pornography “stirs lustful thoughts” or “appeals to prurient interests”? No, because pictures of shoes probably stir lustful thoughts in shoe fetishists, and pic- tures of children in ads for underwear probably stir lustful thoughts in pedophiles. Perhaps, then, the definition must be amended to “material that stirs lustful thoughts in the average person.” But will this restatement do? First, it may be hard to agree on the char- acteristics of “the average person.” In other matters, the law often does assume that there is such a creature as “the reasonable per- son,” and most people would agree that in a given situation there might be a reasonable response—for almost everyone. But we can- not be so sure that the same is true about the emotional responses of this “average person.” In any case, far from stimulating sexual impulses, sadomasochistic pictures of booted men wielding whips on naked women probably turn off “the average person,” yet this is the sort of material that most people would agree is pornographic.
Something must be wrong, then, with the definition that pornography is material that “stirs lustful thoughts in the average person.” We began with a definition that was too broad (“pictures of nude figures”), but now we have a definition that is too narrow. We must go back to the drawing board. This is not nitpicking. The label “average person” was found to be inadequate in a pornogra- phy case argued before the Supreme Court; because the materials in question were aimed at a homosexual audience, it was agreed that the average person would not find them sexually stimulating.
One difficulty has been that pornography is often defined according to its effect on the viewer (“genital commotion,” Father Harold Gardiner, S.J., called it, in Catholic Viewpoint on Censorship),
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but different people, we know, may respond differently. In the first half of the twentieth century, in an effort to distinguish between pornography and art—after all, most people don’t want to regard Botticelli’s Venus or Michelangelo’s David as “dirty”—it was com- monly said that a true work of art does not stimulate in the specta- tor ideas or desires that the real object might stimulate. But in 1956, Kenneth Clark, probably the most influential English-speak- ing art critic of the twentieth century, changed all that; in a book called The Nude he announced that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling.”
SUMMARIZING AND PARAPHRASING
Perhaps the best approach to a fairly difficult essay is, after first reading, to reread it and simultaneously to take notes on a sheet of paper, perhaps summarizing each paragraph in a sentence or two. Writing a summary will help you to
• Understand the contents and
• See the strengths and weaknesses of the piece.
Don’t confuse a summary with a paraphrase. A paraphrase is a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase rewording of a text, a sort of translation of the author’s language into your own. A paraphrase is therefore as long as the original or even longer; a summary is much shorter. A book may be summarized in a page, or even in a para- graph or a sentence. Obviously the summary will leave out all detail, but—if the summary is a true summary—it accurately states the gist, the essential thesis or claim or point of the original.
Why would anyone ever summarize, and why would anyone ever paraphrase? Because, as we have already said, these two activ- ities—in different ways —help readers follow the original author’s ideas. But, again, summarizing and paraphrasing are not the same.
• When you summarize, you are standing back, saying very briefly what the whole adds up to; you are seeing the forest, not the individual trees.
• When you paraphrase, you are inching through the forest, scrutinizing each tree—that is, finding a synonym for almost every word in the original, in an effort to make sure that you know exactly what you are dealing with. (Caution: Do not
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incorporate a summary or a paraphrase into your own essay without acknowledging your source and stating that you are summarizing or paraphrasing.)
Let’s examine the distinction between summary and paraphrase in connection with the first two paragraphs of Paul Goodman’s essay, “A Proposal to Abolish Grading,” which is excerpted from Goodman’s book, Compulsory Miseducation and the Community of Scholars (1966). The two paragraphs run thus:
Let half a dozen of the prestigious universities—Chicago, Stanford, the Ivy League — abolish grading, and use testing only and entirely for pedagogic purposes as teachers see fit.
Anyone who knows the frantic temper of the present schools will understand the transvaluation of values that would be effected by this modest innovation. For most of the students, the competitive grade has come to be the essence. The naive teacher points to the beauty of the subject and the ingenuity of the research; the shrewd student asks if he is responsible for that on the final exam.
A summary of these two paragraphs might run thus:
If some top universities used tests only to help students to learn, students would stop worrying about grades and might share the teacher’s interest in the beauty of the subject.
We hope we have accurately summarized Goodman’s point, though we know we have lost his flavor, his style—for instance, the wry tone in his pointed contrast between “the naive teacher” and “the shrewd student.”
Now for a paraphrase. Suppose you are not quite sure what Goodman is getting at, maybe because you are uncertain about the meanings of some words (perhaps pedagogic and transvaluation?), or maybe just because the whole passage is making such a startling point that you want to make sure that you have understood it. In such a case, you may want to move slowly through the sentences, translating them (so to speak) into your own English. For instance, you might turn Goodman’s “pedagogic purposes” into “goals in teaching” or “attempts to help students to learn,” or some such thing. Here is a paraphrase—not a summary but an extensive rewording— of Goodman’s paragraphs:
Suppose some of the top universities—such as Chicago, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, and whatever other schools are in the Ivy
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League — stopped using grades and used tests only in order to help students to learn.
Everyone who is aware of the hysterical mood in schools today will understand the enormous change in views of what is good and bad that would come about by this small change. At present, instructors, unworldly folk, talk about how beautiful their subjects are, but smart students know that grades are what count, so they listen to instructors only if they know that the material the instructor is talking about will be on the exam.
In short, you may want to paraphrase an important text that your imagined reader may find obscure because it is written in special- ized, technical language, for instance, the language of psychiatry or of sociology. You want the reader to see the passage itself—you don’t want to give just the gist, just a summary—but you know that the full passage will puzzle the reader, so you offer help, giving a paraphrase before going on to make your own point about the author’s point.
A second good reason to offer a paraphrase is if there is sub- stantial disagreement about what the text says. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a good example of this sort of text:
A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.
Exactly what, one might ask, is a “Militia”? And what does it mean for a militia to be “well regulated”? And does “the people” mean each individual, or does it mean—something very different—the citizenry as some sort of unified group? After all, elsewhere in the document, when the Constitution speaks of individuals, it speaks of a “man” or a “person,” not “the people.” To speak of “the people” is to use a term (some argue) that sounds like a reference to a unified group—perhaps the citizens of each of the thirteen states?—rather than a reference to individuals. On the other hand, if Congress did mean a unified group rather than individuals, why didn’t it say “Congress shall not prohibit the states from organizing militias”?
In fact, thousands of pages have been written about this sen- tence, and if you are going to talk about it, you certainly have to let your reader know exactly what you make out of each word. In short, you almost surely will paraphrase it, going word by word, giving your reader your sense of what each word or phrase says. Here is one paraphrase:
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Because an independent society needs the protection of an armed force if it is to remain free, the government may not limit the right of the individuals (who may some day form the militia needed to keep the society free) to possess weapons.
In this interpretation, the Constitution grants individuals the right to possess weapons, and that is that. Other students of the Constitu- tion, however, offer very different paraphrases, usually along these lines:
Because each state that is now part of the United States may need to protect its freedom [from the new national government], the national government may not infringe on the right of each state to form its own disciplined militia.
This second paraphrase says that the federal government may not prevent each state from having a militia; it says nothing about every individual person having a right to possess weapons. The first of these two paraphrases, or something like it, is one that might be offered by the National Rifle Association or any other group that interprets the Constitution as guaranteeing individuals the right to own guns. The second paraphrase, or something like it, might be offered by groups that seek to limit the ownership of guns.
Why paraphrase? Here are two reasons (perhaps the only two reasons) why you might paraphrase a passage:
• To help yourself to understand it. In this case, the paraphrase does not appear in your essay.
• To help your reader to understand a passage that is especially important but that for one reason or another is not immedi- ately clear. In this case, you paraphrase the passage to let the reader know exactly what it means. This paraphrase, of course, does appear in your essay.
A Note about Paraphrase and Plagiarism If you offer a paraphrase, be sure to tell the reader, explicitly, what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you do not explicitly say that you are paraphrasing Jones’s material, you are plagiarizing. If you merely cite the author (“As Jones says”) and then you give a paraphrase, you are plagiarizing. How, you may ask, can you be accused of plagiarism if you cite your source? Here is how: If you do not explicitly say that you are paraphrasing Jones, the reader assumes you have digested Jones’s point and are giving it in a
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summary form, entirely in your own words; the reader does not think (unless you say that you are paraphrasing) that you are merely following Jones’s passage phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, changing some words but not really writing your own sentences. In short, when you paraphrase you are translating, not writing. (For a further comment on plagiarism, see page 206.)
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A RULE FOR WRITERS: Your essay is likely to include brief summaries of points of view that you are agreeing or disagreeing with, but it will rarely include a paraphrase unless the original is obscure and you think you need to present a passage at length but in words that are clearer than those of the original. If you do paraphrase, explic- itly identify the material as a paraphrase.
Last Words (Almost) about Summarizing Summarizing each paragraph or each group of closely related para- graphs will help you to follow the thread of the discourse and, when you are finished, will provide you with a useful map of the essay. Then, when you reread the essay yet again, you may want to underline passages that you now understand are the author’s key ideas—for instance, definitions, generalizations, summaries—and you may want to jot notes in the margins, questioning the logic, expressing your uncertainty, or calling attention to other writers who see the matter differently. Here is a paragraph from a 1973 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, setting forth reasons that the government may cen- sor obscene material. We follow it with a sample summary.
If we accept the unprovable assumption that a complete education requires the reading of certain books, and the well-nigh universal belief that good books, plays, and art lift the spirit, improve the mind, enrich the human personality, and develop character, can we then say that a state legislature may not act on the corollary assumption that commerce in obscene books, or public exhibitions focused on obscene conduct, have a tendency to exert a corrupting and debasing impact leading to antisocial behavior? The sum of experience, including that of the past two decades, affords an ample basis for legislatures to conclude that a sensitive, key relationship of human existence, central to family life, community welfare, and the development of human personality,
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can be debased and distorted by crass commercial exploitation of sex. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits a State from reaching such a conclusion and acting on it legislatively simply because there is no conclusive empirical data.
Now for a student’s summary. Notice that the summary does not include the reader’s evaluation or any other sort of comment on the original; it is simply an attempt to condense the original. Notice too that, because its purpose is merely to assist the reader to grasp the ideas of the original by focusing on them, it is written in a sort of shorthand (not every sentence is a complete sentence), though, of course, if this summary were being presented in an essay, it would have to be grammatical.
Unprovable but acceptable assumption that good books etc. shape
character, so that legislature can assume obscene works debase
character. Experience lets one conclude that exploitation of sex
debases the individual, family, and community. Though “there is no
conclusive empirical data” for this view, the Constitution lets
states act on it legislatively.
• A few words (in the last sentence of the summary) are quoted exactly as in the original. They are enclosed within quotation marks.
• For the most part, the original material is drastically reduced. The first sentence of the original, some eighty words, is reduced in the summary to nineteen words.
Of course, the summary loses much of the detail and flavor of the original: “Good books etc.” is not the same as “good books, plays, and art”; and “shape character” is not the same as “lift the spirit, improve the mind, enrich the human personality, and develop character.” But the statement in the summary will do as a rough approximation, useful for a quick review. More important, the act of writing a summary forces the reader to go slowly and to think about each sentence of the original. Such thinking may help the reader-writer to see the complexity — or the hollowness — of the original.
The sample summary in the preceding paragraph was just that, a summary; but when writing your own summaries, you will often
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find it useful to inject your own thoughts (“seems far-fetched,” “strong point,” “I don’t get it”), enclosing them within square brack- ets or in some other way to keep these responses distinct from your summary of the writer’s argument.
Review: If your instructor asks you to hand in a summary,
• It should not contain ideas other than those found in the original piece.
• You can rearrange these, add transitions as needed, and so forth, but the summary should give the reader nothing but a sense of the original piece.
• If the summary includes any of the original wording, these words should be enclosed within quotation marks.
• In your notes, keep a clear distinction between your writing and the writing of your source. For the most part you will summarize, but if you paraphrase, indicate that the words are a paraphrase, and if you quote directly, indicate that you are quoting.
We don’t want to nag you, but we do want to emphasize the need to read with a pencil in hand. If you read slowly and take notes, you will find that what you read will give you the “strength and nourishment” that John Locke spoke of.
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A RULE FOR WRITERS: Remember that when you write a summary, you are putting yourself into the author’s shoes.
Having insisted that the essays in this book need to be read slowly because the writers build one reason on another, we will now seem to contradict ourselves by presenting an essay that can almost be skimmed. Susan Jacoby’s essay originally appeared in the New York Times, a thoroughly respectable newspaper but not one that requires its readers to linger over every sentence. Still, com- pared with most of the news accounts, Jacoby’s essay requires close reading. When you read the essay, you will notice that it zigs and zags, not because Jacoby is careless or wants to befuddle her read- ers but because she wants to build a strong case to support her point of view and must therefore look at some widely held views that she does not accept; she must set these forth and then give her reasons for rejecting them.
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Susan Jacoby (b. 1946), a journalist since the age of seventeen, is well known for her feminist writings. “A First Amendment Junkie” (our title) appeared in the Hers column in the New York Times in 1978.
A First Amendment Junkie
It is no news that many women are defecting from the ranks of civil libertarians on the issue of obscenity. The conviction of Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine—before his metamorphosis into a born-again Christian—was greeted with unabashed feminist approval. Harry Reems, the unknown actor who was convicted by a Memphis jury for conspiring to distribute the movie Deep Throat, has carried on his legal battles with almost no support from women who ordinarily regard themselves as supporters of the First Amendment. Feminist writers and scholars have even discussed the possibility of making common cause against pornography with adversaries of the women’s movement—including opponents of the equal rights amendment and “right-to-life” forces.
All of this is deeply disturbing to a woman writer who believes, as I always have and still do, in an absolute interpretation of the First Amendment. Nothing in Larry Flynt’s garbage convinces me that the late Justice Hugo L. Black was wrong in his opinion that “the Federal Government is without any power whatsoever under the Constitution to put any type of burden on free speech and expres- sion of ideas of any kind (as distinguished from conduct).” Many women I like and respect tell me I am wrong; I cannot remember having become involved in so many heated discussions of a public issue since the end of the Vietnam War. A feminist writer described my views as those of a “First Amendment junkie.”
Many feminist arguments for controls on pornography carry the implicit conviction that porn books, magazines, and movies pose a greater threat to women than similarly repulsive exercises of free speech pose to other offended groups. This conviction has, of course, been shared by everyone—regardless of race, creed, or sex—who has ever argued in favor of abridging the First Amendment. It is the argument used by some Jews who have withdrawn their support from the American Civil Liberties Union because it has defended the right of American Nazis to march through a community inhabited by survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps.
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If feminists want to argue that the protection of the Constitution should not be extended to any particularly odious or threatening form of speech, they have a reasonable argument (although I don’t agree with it). But it is ridiculous to suggest that the porn shops on 42nd Street are more disgusting to women than a march of neo- Nazis is to survivors of the extermination camps.
The arguments over pornography also blur the vital distinc- tion between expression of ideas and conduct. When I say I believe unreservedly in the First Amendment, someone always comes back at me with the issue of “kiddie porn.” But kiddie porn is not a First Amendment issue. It is an issue of the abuse of power — the power adults have over children — and not of obscenity. Parents and promoters have no more right to use their children to make porn movies than they do to send them to work in coal mines. The responsible adults should be prosecuted, just as adults who use children for back-breaking farm labor should be prosecuted.
Susan Brownmiller, in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, has described pornography as “the undiluted essence of antifemale propaganda.” I think this is a fair description of some types of pornography, especially of the brutish subspecies that equates sex with death and portrays women primarily as objects of violence.
The equation of sex and violence, personified by some glossy rock record album covers as well as by Hustler, has fed the illusion that censorship of pornography can be conducted on a more rational basis than other types of censorship. Are all pictures of naked women obscene? Clearly not, says a friend. A Renoir nude is art, she says, and Hustler is trash. “Any reasonable person” knows that.
But what about something between art and trash — some- thing, say, along the lines of Playboy or Penthouse magazines? I asked five women for their reactions to one picture in Penthouse and got responses that ranged from “lovely” and “sensuous” to “revolting” and “demeaning.” Feminists, like everyone else, seldom have rational reasons for their preferences in erotica. Like members of juries, they tend to disagree when confronted with something that falls short of 100 percent vulgarity.
In any case, feminists will not be the arbiters of good taste if it becomes easier to harass, prosecute, and convict people on obscen- ity charges. Most of the people who want to censor girlie magazines are equally opposed to open discussion of issues that are of vital concern to women: rape, abortion, menstruation, contraception,
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lesbianism—in fact, the entire range of sexual experience from a women’s viewpoint.
Feminist writers and editors and filmmakers have limited financial resources: Confronted by a determined prosecutor, Hugh Hefner1 will fare better than Susan Brownmiller. Would the Memphis jurors who convicted Harry Reems for his role in Deep Throat be inclined to take a more positive view of paintings of the female genitalia done by sensitive feminist artists? Ms. magazine has printed color reproductions of some of those art works; Ms. is already banned from a number of high school libraries because someone considers it threatening and/or obscene.
Feminists who want to censor what they regard as harmful pornography have essentially the same motivation as other would-be censors: They want to use the power of the state to accomplish what they have been unable to achieve in the marketplace of ideas and images. The impulse to censor places no faith in the possibilities of democratic persuasion.
It isn’t easy to persuade certain men that they have better uses for $1.95 each month than to spend it on a copy of Hustler? Well, then, give the men no choice in the matter.
I believe there is also a connection between the impulse toward censorship on the part of people who used to consider themselves civil libertarians and a more general desire to shift responsibility from individuals to institutions. When I saw the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I was stunned by its series of visual images equating sex and violence, coupled with what seems to me the mindless message (a distortion of the fine Judith Rossner novel) that casual sex equals death. When I came out of the movie, I was even more shocked to see parents standing in line with children between the ages of ten and fourteen.
I simply don’t know why a parent would take a child to see such a movie, any more than I understand why people feel they can’t turn off a television set their child is watching. Whenever I say that, my friends tell me I don’t know how it is because I don’t have children. True, but I do have parents. When I was a child, they did turn off the TV. They didn’t expect the Federal Communications Commission to do their job for them.
I am a First Amendment junkie. You can’t OD on the First Amend-ment, because free speech is its own best antidote.
JACOBY / A FIRST AMENDMENT JUNKIE 45
1Hugh Hefner Founder and longtime publisher of Playboy magazine. [Editors’ note.]
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Summarizing Jacoby, Paragraph by Paragraph Suppose we want to make a rough summary, more or less para- graph by paragraph, of Jacoby’s essay. Such a summary might look something like this (the numbers refer to Jacoby’s paragraphs):
1. Although feminists usually support the First Amendment, when it comes to pornography, many feminists take pretty much the position of those who oppose ERA and abortion and other causes of the women’s movement.
2. Larry Flynt produces garbage, but I think his conviction rep- resents an unconstitutional limitation of freedom of speech.
3, 4. Feminists who want to control (censor) pornography argue that it poses a greater threat to women than similar repulsive speech poses to other groups. If feminists want to say that all offensive speech should be restricted, they can make a case, but it is absurd to say that pornography is a “greater threat” to women than a march of neo-Nazis is to survivors of concentration camps.
5. Trust in the First Amendment is not refuted by kiddie porn; kiddie porn is not a First Amendment issue but an issue of child abuse.
6, 7, 8. Some feminists think censorship of pornography can be more “rational” than other kinds of censorship, but a picture of a nude woman strikes some women as base and others as “lovely.” There is no unanimity.
9, 10. If feminists censor girlie magazines, they will find that they are unwittingly helping opponents of the women’s movement to censor discussions of rape, abortion, and so on. Some of the art in the feminist magazine Ms. would doubtless be censored.
11, 12. Like other would-be censors, feminists want to use the power of the state to achieve what they have not achieved in “the marketplace of ideas.” They display a lack of faith in “democratic persuasion.”
13, 14. This attempt at censorship reveals a desire to “shift respon- sibility from individuals to institutions.” The responsibility— for instance, to keep young people from equating sex with violence—is properly the parents’.
15. We can’t have too much of the First Amendment.
Jacoby’s thesis, or major claim, or chief proposition—that any form of censorship of pornography is wrong—is clear enough,
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even as early as the end of her first paragraph, but it gets its life or its force from the reasons offered throughout the essay. If we want to reduce our summary even further, we might say that Jacoby supports her thesis by arguing several subsidiary points. We will merely assert them briefly, but Jacoby argues them—that is, she gives reasons:
a. Pornography can scarcely be thought of as more offensive than Nazism.
b. Women disagree about which pictures are pornographic. c. Feminists who want to censor pornography will find that
they help antifeminists to censor discussions of issues advo- cated by the women’s movement.
d. Feminists who favor censorship are in effect turning to the gov- ernment to achieve what they haven’t achieved in the free marketplace.
e. One sees this abdication of responsibility in the fact that parents allow their children to watch unsuitable movies and television programs.
If we want to present a brief summary in the form of one coherent paragraph—perhaps as part of our own essay to show the view we are arguing in behalf of or against—we might write some- thing like this summary. (The summary would, of course, be prefaced by a lead-in along these lines: “Susan Jacoby, writing in the New York Times, offers a forceful argument against censorship of pornography. Jacoby’s view, briefly, is . . .”.)
When it comes to censorship of pornography, some feminists take a
position shared by opponents of the feminist movement. They
argue that pornography poses a greater threat to women than
other forms of offensive speech offer to other groups, but this
interpretation is simply a mistake. Pointing to kiddie porn is also a
mistake, for kiddie porn is an issue involving not the First
Amendment but child abuse. Feminists who support censorship of
pornography will inadvertently aid those who wish to censor dis-
cussions of abortion and rape or censor art that is published in
magazines such as Ms. The solution is not for individuals to turn to
institutions (that is, for the government to limit the First
Amendment) but for individuals to accept the responsibility for
teaching young people not to equate sex with violence.
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Whether we agree or disagree with Jacoby’s thesis, we must admit that the reasons she sets forth to support it are worth think- ing about. Only a reader who closely follows the reasoning with which Jacoby buttresses her thesis is in a position to accept or reject it.
TOPICS FOR CRITICAL THINKING AND WRITING
1. What does Jacoby mean when she says she is a “First Amendment junkie” (para. 15)?
2. The essay is primarily an argument against the desire of some femi- nists to try to censor pornography of the sort that appeals to some heterosexual adult males, but the next-to-last paragraph is about tel- evision and children. Is the paragraph connected to Jacoby’s overall argument? If so, how?
3. Evaluate the final paragraph as a final paragraph. (Effective final paragraphs are not, of course, all of one sort. Some, for example, round off the essay by echoing something from the opening; others suggest that the reader, having now seen the problem, should think further about it or even act on it. But a good final paragraph, what- ever else it does, should make the reader feel that the essay has come to an end, not just broken off.)
4. This essay originally appeared in the New York Times. If you are unfamiliar with this newspaper, consult an issue or two in your library. Next, in a paragraph, try to characterize the readers of the paper— that is, Jacoby’s audience.
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✓ A CHECKLIST FOR GETTING STARTED � Have I adequately previewed the work? � Can I state the thesis? � If I have jotted down a summary,
� Is the summary accurate? � Does the summary mention all the chief points? � If there are inconsistencies, are they in the summary or the
original selection? � Will the summary be clear and helpful?
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5. Jacoby claims in paragraph 2 that she “believes . . . in an absolute interpretation of the First Amendment.” What does such an inter- pretation involve? Would it permit shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater even though the shouter knows there is no fire? Would it permit shouting racist insults at blacks or immigrant Vietnamese? Spreading untruths about someone’s past? If the “absolutist” interpretation of the First Amendment does permit these state- ments, does that argument show that nothing is morally wrong with uttering them? (Does the First Amendment, as actually inter- preted by the Supreme Court today, permit any or all of these claims? Consult your reference librarian for help in answering this question.)
6. Jacoby implies that permitting prosecution of persons on obscenity charges will lead eventually to censorship of “open discussion” of important issues such as “rape, abortion, menstruation, contracep- tion, lesbianism” (para. 9). Do you find her fears convincing? Does she give any evidence to support her claim?
EXERCISE: LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Your college newspaper has published a letter that links a hateful attribute to a group and that clearly displays hate for the entire group. (For instance, the letter charges that interracial marriages should be made illegal because “African Americans contain a crim- inal gene,” or that “Jews should not be elected to office because their loyalty is to Israel, not the United States,” or that “Muslims should not be allowed to enter the country because they are intent on destroying America.”) The letter generates many letters of response; some responses, supporting the editor’s decision to pub- lish the letter, make these points:
• The writer of the offending letter is a student in the college, and she has a right to express her views.
• The point of view expressed is probably held only by a few persons, but conceivably it expresses a view held by a significant number of students.
• Editors should not act as censors. • The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. • Freedom of expression is healthy, i.e., society gains.
On the other hand, among the letters opposing the editor’s decision to publish, some make points along these lines:
• Not every view of every nutty student can be printed; editors must make responsible choices.
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• The First Amendment, which prohibits the government from con- trolling the press, has nothing to do with a college newspaper.
• Letters of this sort do not foster healthy discussion; they merely heat things up.
Write a 250- to 500-word letter to the editor, expressing your view of the editor’s decision to publish the first letter. (If you wish, you can assume that the letter was on one of the topics we specify in the second sentence of this exercise. But in any case, address the general issue of the editor’s decision, not only the specific issue of the charge or charges made in the first letter.)
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