Thursday, June 20, 2024

Chihuahua’s misogynistic music ban is great, but I’ve got questions

The other night, I had a terrifying dream: I’d gone to some fascist political rally with some “friends” whom I was trying to convince of my own fascist loyalties, lest I be “outed” as a liberal. 

To the side of the stage, I saw the police beating people and then throwing them into a van that had compartments for individual bodies. I immediately started worrying that my own writings would be discovered and I’d suffer the same fate.

It was a violent dream, and an odd one. Though a few readers have written to me to explicitly say, “Be careful what you write about, you don’t want the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kinds of people,” I generally don’t worry about bad guys getting obsessive about my very regular writing for a fairly niche audience. 

I’m also not known as someone who goes around shouting about free speech, especially when it means the “freedom” to humiliate and slander disadvantaged groups or rile people up. And I certainly don’t believe that money or guns count as speech. But actual speech, including sung speech, is speech.

How do we decide, then, what kind of speech is acceptable and what is not? Can freedom of speech still be respected even if we restrict certain kinds under certain circumstances? 

The recent story about restrictions on lyrics that are denigrating to women performed in concerts in the city of Chihuahua has me mulling this over quite a lot. Basically, performers in Chihuahua can be heavily fined for including misogynistic song lyrics in their shows. (In case you’re wondering, this is for live shows only; they’re not banning songs from being listened to privately — as if they could! — or censoring their presence on all the various platforms they appear.)

Patricia Ulate, the councilwoman advancing these rules, insists that the restrictions are a necessary step in a city plagued with violence against women. She also pointed out that narcocorridos were restricted in 2015 as well during a time of rising crime. (If you’re not clear on these genres, the corrido is a traditional, Mexican ballad whose lyrics narrate a story.  Narcocorridos are corridos whose lyrics tell stories that glorify organized crime and drug cartel leaders.)

In this case, performers of corridos tumbados — a fusion of corridos and narcocorridos with more modern, urban musical genres like hip hop and reggaeton — are the most likely to face fines if they perform certain songs. 

And while the president has insisted that he won’t be a part of censorship, he’s also had quite a lot of negative things to say about popular music that glorifies crime and drug use. I share in his amazement that this music is popular in the first place. Because when music insulting half the population is wildly popular, what does that say about the people who love it?

Well, like they say: there’s no accounting for taste.

First off, a disclaimer: at least from the little information given regarding this rule, I am generally happy that it was made. Music that is obviously denigrating to women makes me feel a mix of anger and humiliation that I very much doubt is unique to me (my working title for this — the editor always changes it, so I’m not worried about its appropriateness — is “All Them Bitches,” lest I allow myself to get too intellectual about the whole idea of free speech and determine that it’s all always okay, something I do not actually believe).

Especially when that music is performed in a context where a record amount of violence against women and of women being treated as second-class citizens is very real; it’s a glass-shard icing on a murderous, awful cake. 

Still, I have some questions.

What exactly will be considered denigrating? Who decides whether it’s denigrating or not? Video is included as part of this rule. Will video footage of a woman dancing in a bikini during a concert — a trope as unoriginal as it is ubiquitous — count as denigrating? 

I’m wary on both ends of this debate. As someone who makes a living by expressing her own free speech — which I obviously believe is good and decent and true, just as anyone expressing themselves usually does — I worry about a slippery slope: if we can find a reason to restrict some kinds of speech, we can find a reason to restrict others. 

This time it’s about preventing violence, but it’s not a huge jump to wade from there into limits on political speech, especially in a country where the ruling powers like to take such an active role in steering the national conversation.

On the other hand, I’ve seen how certain forms of “freedom of speech” — especially in my own country, the United States — can take on a life of its own, to all our detriment. The fact that anyone has the freedom to say pretty much anything that’s untrue has caused our society to spiral into a chaos of incivility in which we cannot even agree anymore on basic facts. The people who used to claim that President Obama was a fascist and a Nazi — whom we thought we were laughing off the national stage 15 years ago — now own the stage: the joke’s on us! So things are not looking good.

This is a sticky topic, and I don’t have a solution. Not letting people sing about how fun it is to hurt women in a place where women are being hurt all the time seems like a good idea. Not letting people sing about how cool it is to be a drug trafficker in a place overrun by drug traffickers seems like a good idea.

But there’s no law against being rude and odious, and proving cause and effect is tricky. (My country can’t even get a majority of lawmakers to admit that the proliferation of firearms has anything to do with mass shootings.)

Here’s what the Mexican Constitution has to say: “Free speech shall be restricted neither judicially nor administratively, but when it represents an attack to public morality or individual rights — as well as when it produces a criminal offense or disturbs the public order — the right to information shall be enforced by the State.”

Under these rules, the Chihuahua restrictions are fair. I just hope nothing I produce is ever considered “an attack to public morality” by anyone in power.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com.

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