Body Modification: Rights & Responsibilities – Through the Modified Looking Glass

Body Modification:
Rights & Responsibilities

The average man does not want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.

H. L. Mencken

They are not out to get you. They already have you.

You have no rights. Rights are nothing more than political contrivances, pure fictions of the system. To believe you have rights is to fall prey to the deception that freedom is derived from government when in fact government exists only to curtail freedom. What rights are provided in a political system may very well be reflective of certain core beliefs or fundamental values of the systems creators put in place to prevent or restrict the system’s regulation of certain areas of activity but those rights exist only as creations of the system. To be truly free one must exist outside of and beyond the reach of any governmental system. Whether or not the current state of the world even allows for this as a possibility is highly debatable. Regardless, very few people are prepared for or even interested in such an existence. To be so free is to be in a very precarious position — it is an existence without the benefits of government in terms of security and infrastructure and one of perceived outcast. So precarious, in fact, that most people upon consideration would prefer to take a degree of security in trade for giving up all but those rights delineated by a government. Would you rather be utterly on your own and completely free or do you prefer having laws and police and hospitals and various agencies for regulation and certification? Could you accept a world where other people do just what they want regardless of your ethical disdain or distaste?

Rights are never absolute. As they are created by a system that system will always allow for (in practice) the restriction of those rights. There is no conceptual ideal so great as to stop the actual workings of the machine. Go ask any protester in the holding cell if his constitutional right to free speech kept the police from shackling him and dragging him downtown. It may, however, be what eventually gets him out of the cell via the judicial process. Of course, it may not as well. Many times the actual practice of exercising ones rights is strictly limited to an arguably responsible manner. The classic example for free speech is yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. Furthermore, many systems will deny or further restrict the rights of those with a history of ‘irresponsible’ behavior such as convicted felons being denied voting rights or gun ownership.

So what about body modification? Is it a right? Can it be construed so as to be covered by an existing right in our system of government? Under what pretense does the government regulate and restrict our complete freedom to do what we want with our bodies?

Freedom of speech, via the First Amendment, is probably the most obvious route towards addressing body modification in a political context — at least in the United States. The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Through practice and interpretation “speech” has come to be seen in a broad context encompassing not just simple speech but also expression. Some have further decided to pro-actively interpret the intent of this amendment as a directive to the government not only to respect the free expression of the people but also to encourage a climate in which the people feel free to express themselves. It is through such policies that we can see the development of a common misconception about the First Amendment. It is meant only to ensure your right to make your speech and not to ensure that you will not be offended by the speech of others. However, in the aggressive efforts of government to satiate ‘squeaky wheels’ we can see them attempting to walk the fine line of restricting the speech of some in order to encourage the speech of others. Very often this is tied to issues of religion, with the dissenting non-believers demanding that all appearance of religious icons and expression be removed from public spaces and forums. I myself am not a believer in any religion and I do find the near constant bombardment I receive from many sources to be offensive. However, in the case of non-state funded or mandated expressions I am far happier putting up with the annoyance of their free speech than I would be attempting to walk on the border of hypocrisy by restricting their religious expressions in order to make me more comfortable in my expressions of non-belief*.

* I would like to note here though that so called ‘moments of silence’ or ‘silent meditation’ are complete bullshit. One need simply ask; ‘On what basis and authority is my speech being restricted to silence in favor of those around me who want to engage in silent prayer? Why am I not allowed to sing or dance or chatter per my want?’ If John wants to have a silent prayer beside me that is his right but it is not his right to have me forcibly silenced.

In terms of body modification, I think, it is important to realize that if you view your modifications as expressions to be covered by this ‘right’ then you must almost certainly also recognize the right of the person who calls you names to make their expressions of disapproval. And those voicing disapproval should keep in mind that voicing that disapproval comes at the cost of allowing the expression. Surely the ideal of creating an environment in which everyone can make personal expressions without fear or hostility or disapproval is a fine and noble goal but it is also one that fails the test of practicality in a world that contains diverse and often contradictory viewpoints. Furthermore, it should not be viewed as sufficient cause for the restriction of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. But this cuts both ways — just as you should not demand that your expressions through modification not be mocked under the First Amendment, those who disapprove should not be able to restrict your expressions simply because they find them distasteful.

And, in fact, this is not the traditional justification for such restrictions. The classic example, mentioned above, of screaming fire in a crowded theater is used to illustrate a situation in which the exercise of an individual’s right to free speech deserves to be restricted in that it creates and clear and present danger to the rest of the theatre goers who may be trampled or crushed in a rush to escape the fictitious fire. So, if body modification is a form of expression or speech as covered by the First Amendment then how can it be that the government can restrict or prohibit it via policies and legislation such as school piercing bans and the anti-tongue splitting bills popping up in many states.

Fifty-one percent of a nation can establish a totalitarian regime, suppress minorities and still remain democratic.

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

In the case of school bans the argument is often made that students, who are often minors, do not enjoy the full rights and benefits of a normal citizen because as such they do have the same responsibilities. As they are not legal adults there are many instances in which they are not held to the same standards, one example would be contract law, as would an adult and since they cannot incur the same penalties for violations, they are not allowed the benefits. Another position is that the school environment represents a context within which there are greater needs at play which supercede those rights. I believe that Shannon more than adequately illustrated how patently false this claim is in his article on school policies. As for the former position, I think it is worth considering the vast difference between something like free expression and things like driving and gun ownership in terms of the needs and benefits of restricting the youth.

As for legislation such as the anti-tongue splitting bills, I think that as I pointed out in my column on the then pending Illinois legislation, such bills can often be traced to prejudiced politicians attempting to make clearly unconstitutional laws to enforce their prejudices upon others while also doing some self-aggrandizing soap box politics. They look to exploit a sure media draw in the form of body modification in order to further their careers at the expense of the rights of their constituencies.

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

Henry David Thoreau

Now let us get a little bit crazy.

The majority of modification related legislation has little to do with speech or expression in its content or intent. Along with many school level bans it is claimed that the motivation is one of public health and safety. And while many people, modified and not, will support such measures as requiring autoclave testing, gloves, courses in cross contamination and the like it remains to be shown that it is the responsibility and province of the government to put such regulations into place. Such regulations can make the process of getting tattoos or piercings safer but they are also very often used to promote the interests of certain parties or views (i.e. manufacturers of certain products being mandated into use, requiring certifications and memberships from specific associations, or effectively banning tattooing by requiring it be done by a doctor or with a doctor in attendance).

The government is not concerned with your health and well being as a matter of altruism. It is only concerned with your condition to the extent that a cattle rancher cares about the health of any individual or group of cows within his herd. And much like the rancher, the government takes action to regulate the procedures and hazards to which you are exposed because it owns you and feels that it is simply maintaining and protecting its property.

You are government property. They have laid claim to you as possession and currency. The slogans may read ‘Hearts and Minds’ but it is the ass they’re really after.

This is one of the fundamental aspects of the political world. People are resources just like metal deposits, forests, and so on. And similarly, governments lay claims based on their borders or historical precedent (the happenstance of the geography of your birth or your parents citizenship). If anything, people as citizens are the primary operating resource of competing governments. Look at the role of China in international politics over the last century and India’s increased presence — primarily based upon their large populations.

As such, governments are committed to the management and exploitation of this resource. Some may do so in a more caring way while others may use a Draconian efficiency. However, none will abide the population willfully making its own decisions on matters that affect their value as a resource. Think of the rancher analogy and imagine what steps would be taken towards cattle that display self-destructive or herd disruptive behavior. Now consider government attitudes and actions towards suicide, euthanasia, and to a lesser extent public declarations of self-ownership like many ritual body practices and body modification. Look at the abortion debates, the bottom line has always been one of the government is going to decide what women can legally do with their bodies. The argument of whether or not a procedure is allowed only logically follows after it is conceded that the government gets to make that choice and they get to make that choice because they are the ones that own the bodies.

I can only hope that this is as offensive to others as it is to me.

I see two basic ways of dealing with the situation as it stands.

  1. In order to gain more rights and freedom regarding our bodies and body modification it must impressed upon the system the value of allowing such freedom. If it can be shown that body modification can be beneficial then it would behoove the system to allow, if not promote it.
  2. The other option is to get enough people to deny the government’s position and claim to one’s body — to create a herd revolt. On an individual level, making such a denial could be very precarious and anyone choosing to do so should remember that a government is a system rather than a single entity and successfully navigating it on such a dangerous course is dependent upon breaking down and recognizing the individual components and people which make it up and exploiting them directly on that individual basis to the greatest possible extent.

As always, thank you for hanging in there with my rambling and making it to the end.

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