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With her beheaded Trump stunt, Kathy Griffin made a mistake. But it’s not the one you think

In this topsy-turvy, pussy-grabby, post-truth “covfefe” world we find ourselves in, where the ear-splitting tantrums of alt-right trolling are met by equally cacophonous left-wing counterattacks, morality is seemingly dependent on which reality you choose to live in. Once upon a time — or so we might wistfully reminisce — the world was a simpler place. Discerning the boundary between right and wrong was as easy as telling green from red. But that was then. Now, that clarity is clouded by the desensitising fog of "fake news", dog-whistle headlines and Big Mac fuelled Presidential tweet-storms. Most of us have been left so concussed by the barrage, so morally colourblind, that we're scarcely unable to judge just what affronts to decency and rational thought truly deserve our outrage.

Or so it seemed until Kathy Griffin created a bullseye at which both arch conservatives and bleeding heart liberals alike could aim their crosshairs. In a 12-second clip posted to social media, as she looked dead-eyed into the lens of celebrity photographer Tyler Shields’ camera, Griffin slowly lofted a bloodied severed head with an unmistakable likeness to President Donald Trump. The gory image promptly broke the internet.

Condemnation was swift and unequivocal. "Sick", "dangerous" and "disturbed" — a veritable semantics arms race erupted as pundits, politicians, and the Twitterati scrambled to voice their white-hot ire about the publicity stunt. News networks, upping the ante, began pixelating the gruesome prop to save the delicate sensibilities of unprepared bystanders. But posting the video itself may not have been the most ill-advised move Griffin made. A greater miscalculation may well have been her decision to respond to her critics with a cowering apology.

And not just because her contrite (albeit self-serving) admission of fault has done little to placate the disgruntled masses. Freedom of speech is one of our most important rights, but it has become a rather muddied concept of late. Conservative rhetoric has brazenly hidden behind its protections, enshrined in our democratic ideals, as a means to justify all manner of harmful sentiments. 

But free speech is rarely free of consequence. It’s not a stretch to understand why some people no doubt found Griffin’s gaffe genuinely offensive, and they are as entitled to publically vent those feelings as anyone challenging an expression of racism or sexism or homophobia. However, it’s also true that every act, creative or otherwise, is qualified by its context and in this instance, that crucial detail has been conveniently ignored. It's drawing a very long bow to spin a PR bungle into an incitement to assassinate, but that's exactly where we've ended up.

For anyone in need of some perspective, you need look no further than feminist punk activists Pussy Riot, namely Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Their 2012 protest performance in Moscow Cathedral was not deemed criminal by Russian authorities because of its content, but because of its location and the searing defiance that context gave their music. It wasn’t their trademark balaclavas or naughty lyrics that landed them in a Stalinesque show trial, but rather the symbolism of brazenly challenging a corrupt political system propped up by a powerful and complicit church. 

The outcome of Pussy Riot’s infamous performance was vastly more severe than the digital dressing down received by Griffin, to the tune of several years imprisoned in a "corrective labour colony" for the crime of "premeditated hooliganism". But there is a distant resonance between these two that bears noting. Objectively, Griffin and Shields’ image was tasteless, gratuitous and tacky, but in its way, proportionally extreme in the context of the constant hysteria that has become the political baseline. When our world leaders fail to protect their citizens' rights to simple human dignity, when they drown out the pleas of minorities with populist showboating that emboldens those who seek to discriminate and stigmatise, only the most OTT displays  — whether that be a punk protest or a blood-soaked manikin's head — have any hope of cutting through the noise.

In fact, this is a tactic that all but handed Trump the Oval Office, as he whipped up grand choruses of "Lock Her Up" and made audacious promises to build walls and close borders. But as the architects of such manipulative grandstanding, the right is equally skilled at delivering its countermeasures, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth unleashed on Griffin’s ill-conceived image was as textbook a defence as could be imagined. And yet, for all its predictability, the left, followed by Griffin in her apology, have played into the hands of their opposition by elevating this relative misdemeanour to a cardinal sin, creating a totem of unprovoked "liberal hate" that will no doubt be trotted out to distract from far bigger issues yet to come.

If the left should feel any animosity toward Griffin, it should be because she has dabbled in the dark arts of shock tactic spectacle and failed. Unlike those who wield the same methods on the right, she flinched at the first sign of dissent. Griffin has become a self-made patsy to be weaponised against future liberal concern by not standing by the message she hoped to convey. 

If we allow ourselves to step away from the still piling fallout of this incident, we might remember that as a comedian, Griffin is a loud-mouthed attention seeker, but she is no radicalised firebrand. The insinuation, as has been made in numerous comments over the past 24 hours, that her film clip was somehow inciting a coup d’etat by Trumpicide is far more laughable than any comedy her picture was supposed to provide.

But perhaps the most important takeaway is this. Political art — and while I concede she’s no Banksy, Griffin is nonetheless an artist — has long toed and often crossed the line of common decency to give power to a statement. It’s undeniable that the metaphor made by Griffin and Shields — that the head of the American government, and by extension Western Democracy, should be removed, and that no one, whether comedian or congressman, should feel disempowered to affect that change — echoes a message being made daily by politicos, journalists, and late-night talk show hosts across the States and beyond. To damn Griffin for making the same observation, albeit via less than finessed methods, is rank hypocrisy.

We’re living in a world of political disaster porn. Gone are the days of subtle rubber-necking as we discreetly cruise past the car wreck of our Western zeitgeist. Now we’re queuing up to take selfies amongst the charred bodies and twisted metal. The fact that Griffin's satirical fail has provoked almost the same level of distress as the many dangerous, reckless, thoughtless actions taken by Donald Trump during his short time in office speaks to a worrying trend. We have become a society drunk on scandal, addicted to sleaze, hypnotised by the entertaining catastrophes unfolding before us. It may have jarred and appalled — although I’d wager not half as much as the outpouring on Twitter would account for — but we do need artists to make bold and even brazen acts of protest to shake us awake before we all sleepwalk into a future where a bloodied plastic head will be the least of our worries.

First published 2 June 2017, for The Music.