How Larry Flynt Elevated Our Public Discourse
It’s easy to see why Oliver Stone decided to produce a film based on Larry Flynt’s life. The elevator pitch likely went something like this: It’s a story about good versus evil. It’s the preacher versus the pornographer. But here’s the twist: The pornographer is the hero and the preacher is the villain. It’s Inherit the Wind with gratuitous boob shots. The preacher in this story, of course, is the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, who became the King of Porn’s personal nemesis when Flynt began pushing the boundaries of raunchiness in his magazine, Hustler.
Our society has resolved this conflict, to some extent, through the instruments of our judicial system. On a personal level, this conflict was also somewhat diffused by an unlikely friendship that developed between the two men. But what is surprising about this story, and even inspiring, is the extent to which our public discourse has been elevated by an unlikely marriage between the religious firebrand and America’s leading purveyor of bad taste.
Core Skill: Quod Erat Demonstrandum (Translation from the Latin: ‘what was to have been demonstrated’ (And to give proper credit to the ancient Greeks: ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι))
Let’s give credit where it’s due: during the Flynt cycle in various courts, in which the defendant may have actually thrown tennis balls at the judge, the courts came to grant legal protection for pornographic speech, as well as examine and uphold broader First Amendment principles including the right to criticize a public figure. But this story is more than a colorful history lesson. Our culture today is in dire need of a framework to talk about those Big Ideas–Climate Change, Evolution, identifying the cause of Autism, for instance–that are hotly contested. What is lacking in much of our public discourse surrounding these ideas is a clear standard of proof that will enable us to say, for instance, that President Barack Obama was actually born in the United States or that U.S. forces did, in fact, shoot and kill Osama bin Laden, Q.E.D. That is why Big Think has identified mastering the burden of proof in public proclamationsas one of the core skills that is vital for success in the 21st century.
So what does Larry Flynt have to teach us about all of this?
Throughout his career, Jerry Falwell gave us a number of whoppers. For instance, Falwell said that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals,” but, “it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” According to Falwell, homosexuality was also to blame for Book of Job-style outbursts of divine vengeance including the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
Larry Flynt said and published some pretty nasty things too. Over the years, Hustler has attracted the ire of feminists and people of generally good taste such as Gloria Steinem for printing images of women being beaten, tortured and raped, and subjected to numerous other sexual degradations. Yet it was another incendiary item in Hustler that ultimately landed Flynt in legal trouble with Falwell.
This Campari advertisement–a parody published in Hustler–featured a fake interview with Falwell about his first sexual experience, in which the fake ad tells a fantastic fiction about a Falwell alcohol-induced act of incest in an outhouse with his mother.
What is interesting about this case from a First Amendment perspective is that the ad was an obvious parody. Flynt’s defense was this: since no reasonable person could assume that Falwell actually committed incest with his mother, then no harm was done. The high court unanimously agreed, on the grounds that Flynt’s parody did not violate the actual-malice standard. And yet, the societal implications of this decision went far beyond the meaningless standard of punishing unpopular speech.
So more to the point at hand: Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows says Shakespeare. A joint appearance on Larry King Live accomplished something like that for Flynt and Falwell. The two men became friends, of sorts, and this led to an unlikely meeting of the minds, where Flynt, at least in one instance, convinced Falwell to abandon a public stance he had taken against Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby character Falwell argued was a hidden homosexual symbol because “he is purple, the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle: the gay pride symbol.” Flynt told Big Think the story here:
What’s the significance?
There are standards of proof in the law, in philosophy, and also inherent in the burden of persuasion of public discourse. Larry Flynt is certainly not, and arguably should not be, the arbiter of any of these standards. And yet, we can see how Flynt has played the important role of the contrarian quite nicely in our culture–teaching us valuable lessons we may have otherwise missed. Larry Flynt is no Hitchens and certainly no Rimbaud, but his friendship with Falwell allowed him to (to borrow an acronym Ed Norton’scharacter in The People Versus Larry Flynt used repeatedly in his oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court) call B.S. on certain assertions Falwell made that led to his diminishing relevance in the mainstream, not to mention evangelical sphere. Among other things, these arguments do not survive the burden of proof test, and ultimately discredit the person making the argument.
Larry Flynt is certainly not alone in critiquing Falwell’s statements. Yet his remarkable friendship with Falwell opened up the possibilities for critique in a way that chat rooms today don’t really allow for. Consider Godwin’s Law, which states that no matter what the subject–people could be discussing recipes for homemade tomato sauce–the longer the online discussion goes, the greater the probability that someone will inevitably bring up an analogy to Hitler or the Nazis. (Just follow the comment thread on any viral Youtube video and you will discover sadly and anecdotally how much Godwin’s Law holds true.)
Today’s digital culture is a new wild west in which knowledge is spread exponentially, which also means that mistakes in thinking, or ideas that are not backed by any reasonable standard of proof, might take hold by the influence of a so-called collective intelligence (i.e. online tyrannical majority) that would make de Tocqueville roll over in his grave.
And it takes a pornographer such as Larry Flynt to tell us that.