One of the defining characteristics of an asshat is the willingness — maybe even an eagerness — to be offensive just because they can. Let me be clear about my position here: I believe a free society needs a certain number of provocative, politically-minded asshats to push up against the boundaries of decency and the law. The only way to guarantee your civil rights is to exercise them, and the exercising of those rights often involves a certain amount of asshattery. That said, there are varying degrees of asshattery.
There’s low-level asshattery that’s merely tasteless and offensive. Classic example: Piss Christ, Andres Serrano’s photograph of a small plastic crucifix immersed in a container of his own urine. It’s a deliberately offensive act of artistic asshattery protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Lots of Christians were (and still are) upset (I nearly wrote ‘pissed off’) by it — but it’s just a photograph. We can hang the photo in an art gallery, we can wear t-shirts with Piss Christ on the front, we can make placemats for the dining room table if we want (though there’d likely be some copyright issues).
Piss Christ was originally exhibited in the Stux in New York City, a private gallery open to the public. The photograph may offend, but it poses no physical threat and it can’t hurt anybody.
There’s also mid-level asshattery that’s offensive and media-oriented, intended to spark a wide public reaction. Classic example: the fuckwits of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. These folks have been demonstrating against gay rights since 1991. Their most common tactic is to picket…well, almost anything they think 1) might be related in any remote way to gay rights or 2) will get media attention. They’ve picketed the funerals of gay men, the funerals of military personnel killed in action (because the military accepts gay troops), theaters that show films or stage plays that are gay-positive (or have gay actors, or were written by somebody who might be gay), businesses and organizations that are accepting of gay rights. They’ve even picketed a local appliance store because it sold vacuum cleaners made in Sweden (Sweden, you see, prosecuted Åke Green, a pastor who preaches rabid anti-homosexuality sermons; therefore Swedish vacuums are…no, that sentence is just too fucking stupid for me to finish).
These demonstrations are deliberately offensive, provocative acts of public religious asshattery protected by the First Amendment. They’re intended to generate widespread attention for the church. Although they’re highly offensive and loathsome, the folks at the Westboro Baptist church aren’t actively threatening and don’t physically hurt anybody.
Finally, there’s high-level asshattery that’s often deliberately menacing and causes genuine alarm in the community. Classic example: the Second Amendment/Open Carry demonstrations. These are usually held in response to some perceived ‘threat’ against the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Take the three guys from a gun-rights group called Open Carry Texas. They openly carried their rifles into a San Antonio Starbucks and ordered frappucinos. After being served, they were asked to leave the premises — which they did. They took their guns and drinks outside and sat at the sidewalk tables. Naturally, it wasn’t long until the police arrived. The men told the police they were just exercising their Second Amendment rights; the police ticketed them for disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct is what we criminology folks call a public order offense, a behavior that disrupts the normal orderly conduct of the community. Three armed men sitting on the sidewalk outside Starbucks can reasonably be considered alarming by the community; it could not only impede sidewalk traffic, it could deter customers from entering the coffee shop, disrupting their business.
But to gun rights nutjobs, giving a ticket to these three men is seen as an assault on the Second Amendment. It sparked this in-your-face demonstration scheduled to be held in San Antonio this weekend.
This is a deliberate act of political asshattery, intended as a challenge. That in itself doesn’t bother me. In fact, I appreciate a political tactic that serves to demonstrate the limits of the law. What makes the act of those three men reprehensible is that their behavior predictably caused fear and anxiety, unlike most political/social/artistic asshattery which is merely offensive.
The difference, of course, is that armed people have the capacity to kill others. The general public has no way to determine if the armed people they see on the street are potential mass murderers, armed robbers, terrorists, or ordinary citizens with a firearms fetish (though the notion that an ordinary citizen would feel it was necessary to tote a semi-automatic rifle to Starbucks stretches the definition of ‘ordinary’ to the breaking point).
Perhaps the most egregious display of high octane asshattery came recently from the Second Amendment Foundation, who intentionally decided to institute Guns Save Lives Day on December 14th — the anniversary of the murder of twenty children and six adults in Newtown Connecticut. Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, explained why they chose that day:
“We are going to use the day to get our views out. We don’t want (pro gun-control groups) own that day…. We are going to be there first.”
Gottlieb doesn’t see anything insensitive about holding Guns Save Lives Day on a day most folks are mourning the murder of twenty six-year old boys and girls. His sympathy is reserved for gun owners. He said,
“We’re not doing anything that’s insensitive at all. Quite frankly, what we think is insensitive is attacking the law-abiding rights of gun owners coast to coast and trying to pass legislation so people can’t have the means to protect themselves.”
This is asshattery of the first order — a sick, twisted, hateful form of asshattery. It’s asshattery with the emphasis on ass.
Do gun rights advocates have the right openly carry weapons on the street? Yes, in many parts of the nation they do. Do they have the right to make a mockery of the anniversary of the Sandy Hook mass murder? Yes, absolutely. I’ll defend their right to even this extreme form of asshattery.
But lawdy, I’d like to see somebody create a work of art called Piss Gottlieb.
UPDATE: After considerable outcry and public pressure, the Second Amendment Foundation has shifted Guns Save Lives Day to December 15th, a day later. Gottlieb stated: “We will not politicize the day and we hope they will not politicize and push their anti-civil rights agenda on the 14th. We’re going to show that we are sensitive.”
I see no compelling reason to abandon my hope for Piss Gottlieb.