The [Modified] Body Politic
There is currently pending (it has passed the house and is awaiting review in the senate) in the Illinois state legislature a bill that would effectively ban tongue splitting as a procedure. A lot of people might assume that my interest in such legislation derives from my own experience with tongue splitting but, in fact, what I find compelling about this issue are the far more sinister aspects I perceive — namely, the legislation of prejudice and the use of the media’s body modification obsession to promote personal political agendas. In my view, what is at stake here is not really tongue splitting but something far more fundamental: freedom of expression. However, to provide some background on the subject I will provide a brief accounting of my history with the procedure before addressing what I think are really the core issues.
In 1997 I sought out an oral surgeon and was able to convince him to perform on me a tongue bifurcation using an argon biopsy laser. This was one of the first tongue splittings in modern record (two other individuals using different methods appearing at about the same) and almost certainly the first using the biopsy laser. I immediately began to share my experience and the success of the procedure with the world at large through online resources like BME, SPC, and my own website. I also publicized it through my own live appearances and shows. Soon, a number of people had contacted me and even stayed with me in order to have their tongues split by the same surgeon. Within a year, the procedure had gone from rumor and myth to being one of the more popular “heavy mods” (keeping in mind that popular in this context still means probably less than 3000 people worldwide today – six years later!) A little more than 2 years later I appeared in Time magazine and on Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Tongue splitting was now entering into millions of homes and my touring meant more and more press for the procedure. This was a double edged sword, because as it certainly made more people who might have desired the procedure aware that it existed and was a possibility – it was also just a matter of time before some of those who said “ewww!” when they saw a forked tongue initiated a backlash.
It happened first in Michigan when a piece of legislation was introduced to ban tongue splitting there. That ban was narrowly defeated. Now, in Illinois we have Rep. David Miller who has authored the following (taken from the Illinois General Assembly Website):
Mr. Miller is a practicing dentist who after seeing an article in which I was pictured (so I am told and was reported in early stories covering the bill) brought one of my images into session along with his draft, obviously playing to shock value. He also came armed with a number of alleged facts, many of which I have spent a great deal of time in interviews about the bill having to correct.
Mr. Miller asserts that his bill is addressing a health care issue — unqualified, unlicensed practitioners performing a dangerous procedure (tongue splitting). This is perhaps where Miller has done himself a bit of a favor compared to his equally bigoted colleagues in Michigan who described tongue splitting as ‘gross’ and ‘unnatural’. In Michigan this resulted in the legislature being very quickly identified for what it was — an attempt by a group of politicians to legislate into law their own opinions. That bill was defeated mainly because it would have restricted a freedom of expression without grounds. Miller has obscured this by saying that he simply wants to make sure that the unqualified are not performing the procedure but that doesn’t make a lot of sense given the text of his bill. First, if that were the case then he really should better acquaint himself with the section of Illinois law that he is attempting to amend because it already contains provisions against practicing medicine and surgery without a license that more than adequately restrict tongue splitting to the realm of the medical professional. Second and more importantly, if he only wants to see people using qualified personnel then why include the latter portion of the bill which precludes even the qualified surgeon from performing the procedure without a “therapeutic or clinical basis”. This language is sure to be interpreted by doctors and their lawyers as effectively banning them from the procedure. Tongue splitting is a purely elective procedure. It falls in the same general arena as a rhinoplasty, breast augmentations, liposuction, and the like. It is here that Miller reveals his bias. He does not seek for any of these other, far riskier, elective operations to be justified on a clinical basis.
So, just what is David Miller seeking to do? He is, I think quite plainly, attempting to make his opinions into law. And in doing so, he does not seem to care that he is infringing upon one the most basic and respected of our freedoms: Freedom of Expression. While the expression he opposes today is tongue splitting, it could just as easily be something else like breast implants, dancing, hair dye, or wearing a blue shirt — from a purely logical standpoint any one of these would be just as good as tongue splitting for the form of his argument. He has shown no basis whatsoever as to why tongue splitting should be singled out for restriction. What he has shown is that by exploiting visceral reactions and making unsubstantiated allegations that one can very nearly pass one’s prejudices into law (though I hardly think this qualifies as a major revelation in politics). But given that this law would be very hard to enforce since only the stupidest people would advertise their violation of it and that it would be easily circumvented by going outside Illinois, I have to wonder if there isn’t possibly something more to this…
Miller and his bill have been receiving a great deal of press lately and this is the lifeblood of modern politics. While Miller has certainly not impressed me in my debates with him or his statements to the press, he is certainly no fool. He has to have realized that the defeat of a similar bill in another state would weigh against his chances for success. But I think he has also realized that body modification is currently very popular with the media — at least in terms of ‘eye candy’ and “heavy mods” like tongue splitting especially so. While the agencies behind them may not support or endorse body modifications the cameras will always gravitate to them. By putting out modification related legislation this otherwise unnoticeable politician has garnered himself national and even international press. As a community, if we are to be such, we can only hope and try our best so that he does not profit such exploitation by confronting his efforts and exposing his motives.