Catholic University has cancelled a screening of the film Milk, a biopic of Harvey Milk, a San Francisco politician murdered in 1978 by an angry office-seeker. Because Milk was the first outspokenly gay elected official in California, he is a martyr to the cause of gay rights, and the film (with Sean Penn) emphasizes Milk’s struggle against homophobia.
College Democrats at Catholic U. organized the event, hoping to screen the film this semester. Their request was readily accepted by the Campus Activities office. But the university changed its mind when it appeared that “the program would be a kickoff to LGBT Awareness Month,” the official statement ran (cited here). This raised the question about whether the event would veer “from one of education to one of advocacy.” Hence the cancellation.
One organizer of the event disputed the concern. “We’re not forcing gay rights, or forcing a belief in gay marriage, on anybody at our school,” he insisted. “It was purely LGBT awareness monthawareness being the key word.”
This is the fuzzy line, and it is, in fact, one of the fundamental debates of the last fifty years in fields ranging from epistemology to media/communications to rhetoric to literary studies. How “innocent” is information? To what degree can the medium and the message be drained of ideological-social-ontological content?
Of course, one of the basic suppositions of leftist thought from Marx forward is that what seems objective, natural, and straightforward is, to some extent, always suffused with political premises, values, and norms, however submerged they may be. Leftists would regard the claim that the Milk showing was simply educational as either naïve or deceptive.
In this case, a historical fact is relevant. The film premiered in 2008 just before California voters were to vote on Proposition 8, the California ballot proposition stating that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid.